Rue des voleursBy Michelle Goriou Barany
Street of the Thieves was a short pedestrian passage linking Main Street in Angoulême, France, with the young executives' residential district where Aunt Alice and Uncle Henry lived. On the school days when her classes began early, Janine, at thirteen, chose this shorter way to go to the lycée. Up the climbing street after leaving Aunt Alice and Uncle Henry's house, past an old church with dark recesses, a left turn and another immediate right, and here she was in Rue des voleurs with the many questions it raised in her mind.
On her way back from school, or if her first class started as late as ten, she took the longer way by the ramparts. Meandering alleys leading through a hilly park to an opening in the old bulwark still surrounding the older part of the city gave onto Rue des ramparts. It was a cobblestone street lined on the one side by arches, where long, dark entrances like burrows led to heavy, ornate wooden doors, and on the other by the wall overlooking a vast expanse of greenery and trees all the way to the horizon.
She had come to live with Uncle Henry and Aunt Alice at the beginning of this school year through a series of ricochets, due first to her mother's illness then to the vagaries of war: This last one, the evacuation of all the school children from la Rochelle where she had lived with another aunt and uncle after her mother's death three years ago had brought her here. Her father was trying to get a transfer closer to his family and was now isolated in Gap, a city in the French Alps, where her parents had moved from Paris for her mother's illness.
In the milky grayness of this early morning of German-occupied France, she passed the church with shadow-filled recesses and moved to the center of the street before entering Rue des voleurs.
"Why is that street called Street of the Thieves?" she had asked Aunt Alice one morning when school was out. But Aunt Alice, who had moved to Angoulême with Uncle Henry and their one-year-old son Gérard less than one year ago, did not know.
"Does the name of the street come from the Middle Ages?" Janine insisted.
"It might, but I really don't know, Janine." Aunt Alice was busy warming the baby's milk just so, and her answer was given in a tone peremptory enough for Janine to know that she was not to insist. Aunt Alice did not like being distracted as she followed a tight schedule that enabled her to give the baby his bath before the city had cut the water off.
While Aunt Alice was still in the kitchen, Janine then asked Aida, the part-time helper who, in the downstairs dining room, was now doing the weekly mending and ironing.She, at least, was from Angoulême.
"When my grandmother was little and there were coaches instead of cars, highway robbers hid the goods they stole from travelers there," she said. "It wasn't always a street, but when it was made into one, folks were scared to go through it. My grandmother wouldn't let my mother use it, and my mother wouldn't let me either. If I were your aunt, I'd make you take the longer way to school."
But Aunt Alice herself, pushing Gérard's stroller, took rue des voleurs when she went to market. Aida's answer only triggered Janine's curiosity.
That evening when, after helping Aunt Alice clear the dishes, she returned to the dining room and sat at the table to finish her homework--a short but difficult excerpt from Caesar's Memoir that she had to finish translating into French without understanding anything about his strategy to cross the Alps she asked Uncle Henry.
He was reading his paper across the table from her.
"Do you think," she said, "that the name rue des voleurs goes all the way back to the Middle Ages... that there might have been a brotherhood of robbers? And they lived on that street? And the people who live there are their descendents?"
Uncle Henry, who could pass people up, look straight at them from his tall height and not see them because he was always in deep thought, lowered his paper just enough to look at her over the upper edge, then at the wall behind her. His eyes narrowed slightly as if he were smiling. An amused tone now gave a special timbre to his words. It was amazing how, at times, his voice sounded like her dad's, Janine thought. It was one of the things she liked about her uncle, that besides being fair, he often sounded like his older brother. Too rational but fair.
"I'm sure that the percentage of honest people living there is the same as anywhere else. I wouldn't be afraid to walk through that street.I wouldn't make anything mythical out of it either. Many are poor-- But not thieves. Besides....Alice," he called to Aunt Alice returning from putting the baby to bed. "Isn't the name of that old street between the church and Main Street 'Impasse something?'"
"Impasse médiévale, I believe," she said.
"But Aida said that highway robbers...."
"Aida knows a lot of old fables," Uncle Henry said.
This morning, at the entrance to the street, Janine slowed down, as she had done many times before. She raised her head, stood on her toes, squinted in trying to see again whether some stone at the corner might bear traces of an old engraving reading Rue des voleurs; but there was nothing, except for a worn-out, faded plaque with washed-out lettering which might be Impasse médiévale, as Aunt Alice had said. How odd this, too, was for a street name, she thought. A passage, yes. But an impasse? Certainly not today. Even in the Middle Ages, didn't the arch at the end open onto Main Street? Anyway, everyone called this road rue des voleurs.
And so she walked in the center of the uneven pavement, her gloved hand clutching her satchel handle, because in it was the leather pen-and-pencil holder that her father had sent her from Gap as a New Year's gift two weeks ago. And inside the penholder, was her mother's 14-carat-gold pen, which he had sent also because, he had written, Janine was now old enough to use it and take good care of it.
Each evening at the dining room table, her homework over, she practiced with her mother's pen, trying to reproduce her mother's handwriting, the shape of her letters. As a model, she used the last small bonne année card that her mother had sent her at the beginning of the new year, three years ago, on the year she had died, the year when France had fallen to Germany. Janine had spent that year with her maternal grandparents near Paris, her dad on the Italian front then, her mother ill in Gap.
She had learned early to live with her parents, with those she loved the most, from a distance. Imitating her mother's handwriting with her mother's very own pen, the one she had used to write Janine's bonne année card was one way to feel close to her. She was pleased when, every so often, a word practiced resembled one written by her mother. If the handwriting could be identical, perhaps she could grow to be like her. Not physically. Her mother had short, wavy blond hair and gray-blue eyes, whereas Janine's hair was dark brown, straight over a football-shaped head; and her eyes were dark brown. Perhaps what she could do was grow to have her mother's understanding. Not rushing to judgment, as Aunt Alice sometimes accused Janine of doing. Then, even though dead, her mother would be proud of her. Last night, the difficult translation had taken her so long to complete that, with an oral assignment in history, she had not had enough time to practice her mother's handwriting. Tonight she would.
Ahead of her, a door opened up and a girl about her age, stepped out of an unlit room and headed in the same direction as Janine. The girl walked close to the low, contiguous, one-door-one-window-wide houses with an uneven stone front, with her head down and her shoulders slightly stooped. Janine had seen her before. Her right wrist showed bare over the handle of a worn shopping bag, her arm protruding from the sleeve of a sweater too small for her, a gold bracelet shining around her wrist like a sun ray without a sun source. The black, plain shopping bag bulged with the shape of books. She always wore the same sweater in lieu of a coat, a wide woolen scarf over her head, and dark socks mended with threads of different colors in worn brown summer sandals. What puzzled Janine was the gold chain around the girl's wrist. How could she own such a bracelet when she lacked warmer clothes for the weather? Rue des-- Rue...Janine quickened her pace to get rid of this annoying thought. It was not the kind of thinking that her mother would approve.
After a while, she slowed down. She did not want to pass through the arch at the end of the street ahead of the girl who, she was sure, could only be cold. She felt conspicuous with the comfortable coat her grandmother near Paris had made for her out of a dark-blue woolen one which had once been Janine's mother's, the light-gray angora scarf, gloves and socks her grandmother had knitted for her, and the black but pretty and warm rubber-soled shoes that Aunt Alice had bought for Janine at the beginning of the school year with money Janine's dad had sent to this effect.
But the girl, too, had slowed down. She leaned her bag against the wall and bent over to adjust the strap of one of her sandals. Janine then passed her, and as she did, she caught the furtive up-and-down glance that the girl gave her. Shortly after, still sensing the girl's look upon her, she turned around. The girl was now following her, her head down once more, her shoulders slightly stooping.
Once in Main Street, Janine turned left and glimpsed over her shoulder, but the girl was nowhere in sight, not across the street nor heading in the opposite direction from her.
Ignoring the German ordnance to proceed on the right side of the street at all times, Janine walked stiffly along the left curb, against the flow of people on their way to work, of Germans obeying their own order. As no one had ever stopped her, she did not cross to the right side until she saw Hélène. Today, Hélène's long dark-blond hair had been swept back by her running from an intersecting street to catch up with Janine. It was the large yellow star like a beacon on Hélène's coat, which, as usual, prompted Janine to cross over to the proper side before Hélène came over to hers. She did not want to compromise her friend's safety.
Hélène said an out of breath bonjour and stopped briefly to catch her breath. She fell into step with Janine. An unbuttoned coat, a scarf hanging the length of her coat to one side and dark circles under her eyes gave her a haggard look.
As Hélène did not talk, "Didn't Desmoulins give us a tough translation?" Janine said to make conversation. "I worked longer than usual but couldn't hoist Caesar over the Alps. What I translate doesn't make sense. How did you do?" She turned to Hélène. But Hélène's caved-in and wide-open eyes had a hunted expression that had nothing to do with Caesar.
"They came last night, took my father in a room for questioning. They searched the house."
"Who? The Boches?"
"Shhhh!" Hélène glanced around, spoke in a low voice. " The SS and the milice. They said we were hiding my brother and his wife."
Janine remembered Hélène's telling her a long time ago, it seemed, that her married brother and his wife had come from another country, were not allowed to visit his parents, had done so anyway, but could not stay. "Why," Janine had asked.
"It would be too dangerous if they were found."
Janine was dumbfounded.
"It would be too long...too difficult to explain," Hélène added and made Janine promise not to tell anyone.
Hélène went on, her head turning to look to her right, to her left, behind her. Her voice rose to a murmur, then fell to a whisper: "They went into the attic, the basement, the bedrooms. Looked under the beds. Said they knew my brother and his wife had slept in my bed." Janine had to strain to hear Hélène. "They kept saying again and again that I was sleeping on a cot in the alcove off our kitchen because my brother and his wife slept in my bed." Hélène took a breath, shaking her head. "That I was a liar. That I knew where my brother was hiding." Hélène's lips trembled. Her eyes looked wild.
Janine stopped walking, afraid to ask.
"They didn't find anyone. They...." She glanced around again, whispered. "Couldn't." Then louder. "They weren't with us."
Janine, too, spoke low. "Your father?"
"Warned him that they'd be back."
Again Hélène made her promise not to tell anyone, "Because," she said, "your aunt and uncle wouldn't believe you, they'd think my family is guilty of something, and perhaps they wouldn't want us to walk together."
What could Janine say to soothe Hélène's distress? What would her mother have done in her place? All she could think of was promise and sympathize. She pressed Hélène's elbow in her hand.
Hélène quickly wiped a tear off her cheek with her gloved hand and took a deep breath. They were now approaching school on a short street branching off Main Street, and Violette, a tall-for-her-age, slim and pretty brunette with a pale face, wearing a white rabbit fur coat and white boots was coming toward them. She was friendly with the few who said "hi" to her yet always ended being left alone. Her parents owned a garage. They had the reputation of being nouveau rich dealing in black market and giving parties for the Germans.
An exchanged nod, a reserved bonjour, Violette joined Hélène and Janine. They entered the courtyard of the Art Museum where their classes were held because the Germans occupied the girls' lycée as their headquarters. The ice-coated tongues hanging from the mouth of the gargoyles on the buildings around the courtyard looked like dagger blades.
"A tough assignment we had in Latin," Violette said.
"Caesar really makes no sense to me," Janine agreed.
"I have to go over my translation before we go in," Hélène said. She turned toward Janine. "I have choir at eleven."
"Fine. I won't wait for you then," Janine said. Her last morning class was at eleven. She would go home on Rue des ramparts.
Hélène left to find a secluded place in which to study.
From another corner, Danielle, another classmate, waved a book in Janine's direction.
"I think Danielle wants me to quiz her," she said to Violette. "See you later."
A regretful little smile flickered on Violette's lips.
"Viens avec moi," Janine offered.
Violette tilted her head up and slightly backward, "Pas maintenant." She withdrew atop the steps at the entrance to the hall, by herself as always.
Janine was curious about her. Was she a collaborator, too, as her parents were said to be? She was a good student. If it had not been for the dividing war, would she and Janine have shared their experiences, their likes and dislikes? Would they have been friends? Janine exchanged a few passing words with her, which was more than her classmates bothered to do, then she moved on with an excuse. Again, what would her mother have advised to do? Violette was not duped.
Janine joined Danielle beneath one of the arches around the courtyard. She resembled a picture of Baudelaire that Janine had seen in a textbook, the same broad forehead, the same somber expression like a barricade at a defended entrance. Today she looked sick. "Drill me on the names of the triumvirs along with Caesar and on what they did. I know Desmoulins is going to call on me. And she hates me."
Janine took the book Danielle handed her.
They were studying Roman history and Miss Desmoulins was both their history and their Latin teacher. It was not unusual for her to assign the students the review of events related to their translation.
Janine read the questions at the end of the chapter.
"What were the two parties in Rome? Which one did Caesar represent?"
Danielle gave the right answers and Janine nodded.
"Who were the triumvirs?"
"Caesar...." Danielle hesitated. "Crassus and...." She drew a blank.
"He represented the Patricians."
"That's right," Janine said. After finishing the translation, she had taken the time to study the chapter last evening instead of practicing her mother's handwriting, and she did not need to look up these answers.
"I just can't remember his name. If Desmoulins asks me, I'm lost."
"It was Pompey," Janine said. "Remember it. Pompey. It was to gain advantage over him that Caesar fought the Gallic wars and that's why we have these horrendous translations. Pompey. He's the one."
"Pompey," Danielle said. "I know that. Caesar, Crassus and Pompey. Pompey is Desmoulins' pet."
Janine looked at Danielle and smiled. Sometimes she did not know whether Danielle was joking or serious; but when she least expected it, Danielle said something funny which made Janine forget the icicles frozen at the nose and mouth of the gargoyles, the despair on Hélène's face, the foiled hope in Violette's hello, her own fingers hurting from cold despite the gloves Grandmother had knitted for her. Her mother would have liked Danielle.
"You know the answers," Janine said. And seeing that their classmates had lined up by the door, she nudged Danielle. "Let's go."
Danielle followed her like a sleepwalker. "She hates me," she whispered.
She had not been joking. Janine sighed. Danielle, who was a boarder at the school, told Janine the same thing about her parents each Monday morning when she returned from spending her Sundays with them:"They are ashamed of me and they hate me."
Janine did not know what to answer. What kind of comfort would her mother have provided? All Janine knew to say was: "They don't Danielle. They don't. Parents don't hate their children. They are not ashamed of them."
"Mine are. Desmoulins gave me a bad grade because she hates me and my parents are ashamed. She had not even read my paper!"
Now, past the cordoned-off Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, Apollo, Minerva and Diana in her hunting outfit and about-to-be-released arrow--perhaps evacuated from the Louvre Museum in Paris and enjoining them to be stoic into the high-ceilinged, doorless classroom they went, their teeth clenched, Janine's against the icy cold of the room, Danielle's against what? The cold only? One hand down by her side was clenched as well.
As usual, Janine sat between Danielle and Hélène at a long desk for four. Another girl sat at the end.
Miss Desmoulins came in, tall, fast moving, and always dressed in black. Some students said that she was in mourning because she had lost a brother in the war and then her mother from grief.She was strict, direct, and no-nonsense. She made history interesting; Latin clear and, except for Caesar, approachable. In a whirlwind, it seemed, Miss Desmoulins had sat down, checked attendance, opened her grade book, called on a girl, asked questions, told the girl to sit down, and entered a grade in her book. She was now looking for another name on the list before her.
"Miss Renaudet," she said without raising her head; "who were the triumvirs in 49 BC?"
Danielle banged her knees against the table as she stood up to answer. Her face drained from blood, her eyes sunken in and open wide, she glanced at Janine.
Janine nodded several times to reassure Danielle that they were the three men Danielle had named earlier.
Danielle opened her mouth. No sound came out. She cleared her throat. "Caesar," she said and stopped.
"Yes?" Miss Desmoulins said without raising her head.
Danielle looked at Janine. Helping could not be cheating. Danielle knew the names. She had simply forgotten them because of her panic. Janine mouthed Crassus.
"Crassus," Danielle said and stopped again.
Miss Desmoulins looked up at Danielle. "Yes?"
But Danielle would not, could not answer and Miss Desmoulins' eyes would not waver.
Janine had been there at times herself. She took her satchel off the floor, opened it, placed a notebook on the desk and looked for her penholder to trace with her pen the first letter of Pompey followed by five dots, as if she and Danielle were playing hangman. It would trigger Danielle's memory.
She rummaged through her satchel once. Twice. Between books. Notebooks. Between pages. She could not find the penholder. She looked again. It was not there. And again. No penholder. Her heart now racing, she searched the shelf underneath the desk. Behind the books. Among the papers. Still no penholder. Where could it be? Had she lost it? Forgotten it at home? Now when did she last use her mother's pen?
Danielle was still standing, trembling now under Miss Desmoulins' stare, as unwavering, Janine imagined, as the Nazi's who had questioned Hélène.
Janine crouched down on the desk, her head lower than the girl's in front of her. "Pom...pey," she mouthed for Danielle.
But Danielle shook her head no. It was no use.
"Would you repeat this out loud, Miss Desroux?" Miss Desmoulins said.
The class bristled.
Janine stood up next to Danielle. "Miss Desmoulins, Danielle knew it was Pompey. I quizzed her outside." Her eyes met her teacher's. Danielle, in her field of vision, had raised her head toward Miss Desmoulins with a hopeful look.
"Then perhaps you should both get a zero," Miss Desmoulins said. She snapped the grade book shut, threw her head up and sideways, stood up, and walked to the blackboard. "Open your notebooks. We'll correct the translation."
Janine and Danielle sat down. "I'm sorry," Danielle whispered. "I told you she hated me."
"She didn't grade us," Janine said."I can't find my penholder," she added, on the verge of tears.
"Was your pen inside?"
It was now Danielle, then Hélène, who were rummaging through the shelf beneath their section of the desk. "And you looked in your satchel?"
"You must have left them at home?"
As Miss Desmoulins, at the blackboard, explained the ramifications of a latin clause as if it had something to do with Caesar's ability to reach a breach in the Alps and trudge into Gaul, Janine retraced her actions of the evening before. When had she last used her pen? Did she take it to her room upstairs with the intention of practicing her mother's handwriting despite the cold but had fallen asleep instead? Did she see it this morning? Use it before coming to school? Oh, how, how could she have been so careless? Misplacing her mother's pen so soon after her father had entrusted her with it? Losing the penholder he had bought for her as a gift?
"I'm sure you left it at home," Danielle, next to her, whispered again.
It had to be. What else? She looked at Danielle and nodded. "Oh! I hope so," she said.
"Me too," Danielle said.
Janine's hope rose. Now Caesar could resume his trudging.
Since Hélène had choir, Janine had thought of returning home for lunch through rue des ramparts after her last class at eleven. She hesitated now because it was the longer way home, and she was anxious to find her penholder. At this hour, however, the crowd of women returning from market on Main Street or still going from store to store would slow her up. The ramparts way would still be the faster one.
She walked briskly along the walls overlooking the valley where a row of trees, like a thick crayon mark in the distance marked the course of the Charente River. In denser groves were, a friend whose father was in the maquis had told her, the openings to tunnels and to underground rooms the region's active Resistance had dug. Overhead, puffy clouds deployed like giant parachutes, projected their shadows in the valley below. Perhaps deliverance would come to them with parachutes filling the sky. Deliverance. Deliver. Deliver the country from evil, she thought, thinking and walking faster and faster. And no one would make Hélène cry. Deliver us from evil. And Danielle, even under a teacher's stare, would remember what she had studied and knew. Deliver her, Janine, from evil. And she would find her penholder and her mother's pen at home.
She ran now between rocks, down the slope along the diagonal alleys of the park beneath the ramparts.
When she got home, Aida was folding the ironing board and putting the mending box away.
"Aida, have you seen my penholder or my pen this morning? I can't find them."
"The pen you showed me? Your mother's pen?"
"They're not in my satchel, and they're not at school."
"No," Aida said. "And I've dusted everywhere."
Janine felt her lips quiver. Just then, Aunt Alice, carrying the baby in her arms, came in. She had overheard part of the conversation. "Have you checked your room?" she asked.
"No, but Aida said...."
"Don't forget to look under your bed."
Janine was about to say that she had not used her pen after she had gone to bed because it was too cold, that therefore the pen couldn't be under her bed, but Aunt Alice often found her too argumentative, so she did not object. Besides-- Perhaps Aunt Alicehad found the holder and the pen and had put them in Janine's room to surprise her?
She climbed the steps by two to the bedrooms floor. She threw the door to her room open and stood at the entrance. But nothing greeted her, except for the usual two high windows far apart to her left, her single bed in-between, an empty chair next to it, an armoire in the corner of the opposite wall, and the fire place in the center of the long and bare wall across from her, with its closed black apron. On the narrow marble top, inside a framed picture, her parents near an Alpine brook smiled at her.
Her chest tightened. She knelt by the bed, lifted the bedspread, removed The Three Musketeers that she would finish reading next Sunday downstairs, one textbook she had used earlier in the week, and the notebook where she practiced her mother's handwriting. Lying now flat on the floor, she traced semi-circles under the bed with her outstretched arms. She pulled out the crumpled sheets of a story that she had started in the fall during the hour, then the minutes when it was still daylight and warm enough to read or write, sitting in bed. The story was about Arlette, a girl Janine's age, who was traveling alone by train in order to join her parents in a city far away when, at night, a few miles away from her destination, indistinct figures stopped the train and forced everyone to get off. Separated from the rest of the travelers, Arlette was trying to orient herself and find the direction to the city and to her parents' house, but there was no moon, no stars, and with the war blackout, no city lights. In her luggage were a candle and some matches. She lit the candle, but each time she did, the rising wind blew it out. Janine had stopped writing when, after Arlette lit the candle with her last match, the flame had flickered and died. Janine didn't know how to make her find her way home, and she had fallen asleep with Arlette's fear in the boundless dark curled up in the pit of her own stomach. After that scene, night fell too early and it became too cold for Janine to continue writing in bed and find Arlette a solution.
There was nothing else under the bed but a few dust balls. How childish the story seemed now compared with the real fear of losing her mother's pen! She gathered the sheets of paper in her arms, went back downstairs and put them in the garbage can.
Uncle Henry was back from his office for the noon meal, and Aida had not yet left. He had already been told about the missing penholder and the pen.
With the baby now quietly playing in his playpen, Aunt Alice was setting the table, which was normally Janine's job.
"I've looked everywhere," Janine said. "I can see myself putting the penholder back into my satchel last night. As I do every night. The pen was in the penholder." She paused. "And they're not there now."
Uncle Henry scrutinized the space above Janine's head. He hesitated. "Well.... Has a seam of your satchel come apart?"
It sounded preposterous. This school satchel was not more than two years old.Still, Janine removed her books and notebooks one by one. Perhaps the penholder had somehow wedged itself between the cover and the pages of a book and she had missed it.
Aunt Alice stopped setting the table and watched. Aida, her coat on and one hand on the doorknob, waited to leave.
When the satchel was empty, Janine lifted it up. She held the bottom toward the light. And the light filtered through. It filtered through a three-inch slit where the bottom and one of the sides had come apart. She felt her eyes open wide.
"It-- it couldn't be wide enough for my penholder to slip-- through...?" It was both a statement and a question. She looked from her aunt to her uncle.
They looked perplexed and concerned and hesitated to answer. Uncle Henry cleared his throat."If your penholder was directly over the opening...."
"Wasn't my penholder too big, Uncle Henry?"
Again he cleared his throat. "Upright....with pressure bearing on it--. It would be unfortunate."
Janine put her satchel down against the wall.She paused, about to head for the door. "I must retrace my steps," she said. "May I? May I eat later?"
She caught her aunt and uncle exchanging a doubtful glance. "Go ahead," her aunt said, "but--."
She grabbed her coat from the coat hanger. "It will make her feel better," she heard her uncle remark as, again, she climbed the steps two by two, catching up with Aida on her way out. She reached the outside door ahead her.
"I hope you didn't lose it on rue des voleurs!" Aida said.
Street of the Thieves! That was where Janine had lost it! It all made sense now. This morning. When the girl lingered behind her...it was to pick up the penholder that had slipped out of the satchel. And she did not return it to Janine!
She ran up the street across from her aunt and uncle's house, looking on either side as she ran, in case she had dropped her penholder there or near the church with the dark recesses.
At the entrance to rue des voleurs, she stopped. Her eyes scanned the street for the crocodile brown of her penholder, but nothing caught her eyes. A door opened up, and the smell of frying, slightly burnt onions reached her. A woman in her thirties, in a gray sack dress, stepped out. She stood in the doorway where Janine had seen the girl come out this morning, looking in the direction opposite from Janine. Her heart pounding, Janine approached her.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," she said.
The woman startled and stepped back inside the room. She pushed the door, leaving only a small opening. Fearing that she might close the door completely, Janine spoke fast.
"I've lost a leather penholder this morning, dark brown, with my pen inside. Did you see it? The pen had been my...."
The door snapped shut.
Janine waited, uncertain. Perhaps the woman would open the door again. Maybe she was a foreign woman, a refugee from eastern countries and did not understand the language. Or she was shy and would open the window. Or perhaps she had seen the holder and did not want to answer.
As no door or window opened, Janine left and moved on slowly toward the arch, her head down, looking here, too, on either side of the street. And when she raised her head, she saw the girl who had let her pass ahead of her this morning, the girl who had to have found the penholder emerge from under the arch, carrying a shopping net with a few potatoes inside.
Her heart pounding with determination, Janine went to her. She spoke with assurance.
"This morning, I lost my penholder in this street. You were walking behind me and you had to see it. Do you know where it is?"
The girl shook her head briskly and kept on walking. Hugging the wall, she hastened to her house.
Her fists clenched, tears rolling down the side of her nose, Janine retraced her steps to the lycée, although she did not have any doubt about what had happened. She had lost the penholder her father had sent her for the New Year, with her dead mother's pen inside. The pen she used to imitate her mother's handwriting because it was one way to be close to her. Because she wanted so much to be like her. And she knew who had found them and was keeping them!
Her only class this afternoon was at 3 o'clock. She returned to the lycée by Rue des ramparts, would go back home the other way. A few clouds still drifted east. She remembered her morning thoughts. Deliverance. Deliver me from evil. And let that...that girl return my penholder and my pen, she added now.
The class over, she left school without waiting for Hélène, so anxious was she to be in that street of thieves and confront the girl again. She walked resolutely down Main Street on the German-required right sidewalk; but at this hour, the street was swelling with students on their way back from school, with women already queuing for an extra ration of milk, and she was forced to slow down. An SS officer came out of a store.
Instinctively, the crowd parted into two lines, one along the wall and one down the curb to let him pass.
Before anyone could follow him, she rushed in his footsteps, and in no time she had reached rue des voleurs.
The girl was returning home from school with her books in her worn shopping bag, hugging the wall, slightly stooping and cold, no doubt, in her tattered clothes. But Janine no longer felt sorry for her. She caught up with her.
When she was level with the girl, the girl stopped and Janine did too.
"My pen," Janine muttered between clenched teeth.
"It belonged to my mother."She glared at the girl.
"My mother is dead," she shouted as if the girl did not understand.
But the girl only glared back, stepped down the curb to let her pass and went on her way.
Janine saw herself through the girl's eyes, and her face burning as if her mother had caught her stealing, she fled down rue des voleurs.