Thursday 14 July 2011

THE BOAT IN THE WHEATFIELD / a short story for Bastille Day

The Boat In The Wheat Field

Historically Marie Antoinette once said ‘Let them eat cake’ but also historically it is debated that this wasn’t actually true. It is a fact though, that in 1789 a mob descended on the palace at Versailles and King Louis and his royal family were made prisoners in the Tuilerie Palace inside Paris. Marie Antoinette sought aid from other European rulers, including her brother, the Austrian Emperor, and her sister, Queen of Naples. And it is also true that Marie Antoinette attempted to flee Paris two years later in 1791…
When she awoke that morning, she was shivering, her cheek was cold against the hard floor. She opened one eye and saw a finger of dawn light, a trickle of sunshine from in-between the flaps in the tent. She crawled towards it and out onto the dewy grass of the open field. She had slept in all her clothes, she was dishevelled. She stretched her aching body and unruffled her skirts. The Austrian Lieutenant was there, he was alone by the fire with a barrel on his shoulder. He was tall and he looked down at her, he uncorked the stopper and said,
‘Get on your knees and drink!’
Obediently, she did as she was told, feeling the grass was cold beneath her stockinged knees. The alcohol splashed her face, dripped down her chin, stung her tongue but she was refreshed by the wine and happy to see first light. The Lieutenant had appeared from nowhere, he had been sent by her brother and they were to meet the rendezvous at dawn, they had no time to waste. She had questioned him, but he had shot her such a look, she was sure he was not used to being doubted.
The Lieutenant had short, salt and peppered hair and slate-blue eyes which had reddened with booze. She had noticed his eyes and noted that they were exactly the same blue as the Atlantic ocean when it crashed to the rocks, when sunlight caught the tip of roaring waves, like warm yellow light caught in dark water. The Lieutenant was striding ahead confidently. He was broad and strong looking as she walked behind him. Although he had been awake all night by the fire, he was sure footed, he was leading and she was following.
There was a warm, hazy apricot sunrise that August morning and momentarily she dared to stop walking, stand still and listen to the nothing. She looked and all around her was the movement of swaying crops like a steady rolling of waves as they waded through an ocean of golden wheat. Sallow grasses rustled behind her giving her a sense of being watched and a terrible sensation of being followed and so she hurried to catch him up. Her gathered skirts and petticoats were a precarious net slowing her down, making her weary.
He stopped and waited for her to catch up, he watched her silently striding towards him. What could he see that made him stare like that? The rising sun was a halo around his head, but the expression on his face was pure devilish. He beckoned by tilting his chin as they made a path through wheat up to the waist. He was swigging from a bottle of stolen champagne, he clearly hated the French.
‘The last bottle in Paris!’ He repeated defiantly in Austrian and passed it back to her.
There were pools of red and papery poppies like spots of blood, splattered across the yellow and the clay earth. If this was the end of the world, she decided, if this is the end of life, then the fresh air was a sweet freedom, the silence a blessing and even in death she believed she would somehow still exist in this moment. In captivity she had forgotten how wide the sky, she had longed for the warmth of the sun. She felt as though she were flying and this was a vivid moment she knew she would remember somehow; she’d exist like a ghostly wind in this Wheatfield forever.
She hurried towards the Lieutenant, who had stopped and was pointing to a glitter of water, a green river in the far off distance, at the bottom of the field. He looked down at her and she watched his face and saw his throat swallow. He offered her more champagne, it was wet and warm, fizzing on the tongue and she giggled inside, as bubbles went up her nose and she remembered how once, long ago, champagne had been sipped from her own slipper for a wager.
All around her was a haze of yellow and above just endless blue. As she walked she let her fingers trail through the tops of the tallest grasses. She popped a husk, separating wheat from chaff, she ate the pods, they were nutty and corn sweet.
They marched down the steep downhill towards the river, she stumbled a little, light-headed with exhaustion, hunger and champagne. The Lieutenant caught her, held her steady and took her hand. This wasn’t the done thing, but it was a necessary kindness. His hand was so warm, bigger than hers, it felt like a firm reassurance. Paris was aflame with revolution, it was the end of the world as she knew it.
Down by the river, the banks were steep with nettles, cowslips and wild watercress. Without any hesitation the Lieutenant stripped bare and dived into the cold water. Invigorated he gasped and cupping the water he splashed his face and upper body. She would have blushed usually, she might have looked away, but the view was spectacular. He became animated and spoke to her in her native Austrian tongue and to hear her mother language made her heart swell. Would she care to join him? Oh no no no! She laughed.
‘We have made good time!’ He told her, in fact they were early for the rendezvous. The boat, now he told her all about a boat, he told her about a boat that was coming, about a boat he lived on, he told her all about boats. It was not the words she heard exactly, but she was listening to the sounds he made, the way his voice made her feel. Watching him splash and swim in the clear water that golden morning, made her forget where she was, who she was. It was just like a dream she’d always remember, she kept thinking, this is like a dream.
Seeming refreshed with his morning bathe, the Lieutenant climbed up the steep bank. He was shivering slightly. Suddenly shy, modest, he put his trousers on with his back to her. She reached out and touched his shoulder as if to dry it with her shawl and found his freckled skin cool to her touch.
The Lieutenant lay down, stretched out, on his back in the grass and dried off in the sun, he closed his eyes, momentarily. She sat beside him, sipping the last of the champagne. She saw glistening sun-drenched drops of water in his chest hair and navel. He looked so good wet, his eyelashes, his lips. There was nobody else and there was nothing, but the sound of the rushing wheat and water, the river gurgling, a chorus of sweet early birdsong, a morning stillness.
The Lieutenant gathered himself, he squinted and blinked as though he had forgotten she was there for a moment. They laughed, and then they laughed at laughing. She stood up and smiled down at him as he put on his boots. Once dressed, he stood and addressed her, they stood facing each other. But that’s when he suddenly put his hands about her throat. She took a deep intake of breath, he stared into her face and eyes, then he leaned down and kissed her. He kissed her, and he kissed her again, hard and furiously, holding her about the throat and neck, his fingers grasping the nape of her neck and hair. It was dizzying, a bold kiss, a real kiss, a kiss made with intention and without apology, she accepted it and reciprocated. She delighted in the heat of the young man, the warmth and sound of his breath, life awoke in her senses and pumped in her veins making her heart race.
He stumbled heavily onto her…and that’s when she heard the...second gun shot, and that’s when she heard the dogs in the distance. He took her hand and they dived into the wheat for cover. She heard pistols and dogs, they were closing in and that’s when she knew she had run out of time, that this really could be her final moment and that’s where they fell, there, just there.
Once upon a time, on the edge of a Wheatfield, she knelt and held his head, cradling it in her lap. He was younger than she first thought, his face was smooth, his brow unfurrowed. He looked up into her face, his eyes the colour of the Atlantic ocean crashing to the rocks.
She heard the soldiers and dogs approaching fast, but she didn’t move. She stayed with him, stroking his soft cheek, tracing the line of skin where hair began to grow into his beard with her fingertip. She kissed him very gently on his closed eyelids.
Like poppies, his blood made a splash, a flicker of stains on the yellow clay, and as he grew heavier and left her, the last thing he managed to say was,
‘I am so happy.’

© 2009/2011 Salena Godden
originally published by THE ILLUSTRATED APE MAGAZINE
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