Sabine heard the guns off in the distance, the wind blowing fair for bringing her the sound. “The ominous wind,” Sabine called it on such days. How many years had it gone on, that thunder? She and Édouard had grown up in Louvercy, and until the war she’d loved it there. Now she felt cursed, living so close to the front.
The guns, always the guns.
“Not guns, Sabine – artillery,” Édouard would have said, in the soft voice he always used with her. Then his gentle hand would rise and sift through her hair, drawing her face against the taut muscles of his neck. Sometimes, when she kissed that neck, she felt with her lips the slight pulse of his heart, the blood rising, feeding the mind that loved her.
“How can I help you?” she’d asked him during his last leave, before he’d rejoined his regiment and returned to the front lines to keep the Germans from crossing the Marne. They’d been walking by the Vesle that day, in mid-October, 1918, with summer’s fallen leaves afloat on the water. As a child, Sabine had believed fairies traveled on those leafy boats.
“Your love is all I need, Sabine.”
“You have that. Give me something to do.”
“All right, then,” he said. “A cap. Of soft wool, to cover my ears. Last winter my ears froze.”
“I’ll start tonight,” Sabine said. “You’ll have it before you go.”
“Light blue,” Édouard said. “To match my uniform.”
“With a golden fleur de lis. Could you knit one in?”
“Yes. We have some bright yellow wool.”
Édouard gave her his slow smile and slipped an arm around her waist. “Perfect. I’ll be a walking, talking symbol of France.”
“I care nothing for France,” Sabine said.
“France is our home, in body and spirit.”
“Without you I have no home, Édouard.”
“Thousands have died for France,” Édouard said. “France is bigger than both of us.”
“Is France bigger than love?”
“Sabine, please – don’t talk that way. It weakens me.”
They sat on the bank and Édouard told her about the old rowboat he’d found, with a hole in it. “I patched it with scrap wood and painted it red. When the war ends I’ll come home on the river, Sabine. In my red boat.” He pulled a dried stalk of reed and tossed it into the stream. “If I come home.”
“You mustn’t talk that way, Édouard. Of course you’ll come home.”
“I’ve been lucky so far, Sabine, and…”
“No!” Sabine reached to cover his mouth with her hand, but he cuffed her arm away.
“Stop thinking like a child, Sabine! Living on wishes. I face the worst every day, and you must face it, too. If my death comes, let it come as news you’ve long expected.”
On every leave she’d seen changes in him: thinner, quieter, more easily angered. “You’re already wounded,” she said quietly. “Already dying.”
“You can’t imagine the horrors I’ve seen,” Édouard said. “But surely this slaughter will end war forever. Have faith.”
“You hurt my arm, Édouard.”
“Forgive me, ma chère.” He reached for her. “Where? Let me kiss it.”
One evening early in November, Sabine went to sit by the Vesle, the water so peaceful, but the guns audible again, another ominous wind. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly.
The war would soon end in victory, people kept saying. But she was no child, living on wishes. Brave words meant nothing. They were like the curtains people drew across their windows each night. All they did was hide the darkness.
Talk, talk, talk, but still the war, and always the guns.
When she opened her eyes she saw the cap floating on the river. It drifted past, coming from the north, from the fighting. She leaped to her feet. A light blue cap, spiced with a golden fleur de lis. She was a poor swimmer, but she waded into the water. She needed to hold that cap in her hands, to inspect every fiber of it for what it might tell her about the fate of the soldier whose head it had warmed.
Then from the opposite bank came men’s voices, strange sounds rising in boisterous crescendos. Sabine froze. Two soldiers stood watching her, passing a bottle of wine between them. German soldiers, far from the front. Deserters. Desperate, dangerous men if the stories she’d heard were true.
One of the soldiers said something to his companion and pointed at Sabine. They laughed, then raised their rifles, the muzzles round, black, depthless eyes taking aim at her. She plunged underwater and swam with the current as fast and far as her breath would allow.
She surfaced, gasping. She’d moved downriver from the Germans, but they were still there. They waved to her and laughed again, pleased by having frightened her. “Auf wiedersehen, fraulein,” one of them called. Then they walked away, shadows blending into deeper shadows.
Sabine swam to the bank and climbed out, shivering. On the path, she trotted toward the village, where lights shone from windows. Here and there along the way she went and searched the riverbank and the water, looking for the cap. In the twilight, low tree branches whipped her face. A briar slashed her arm, drawing blood. But the cap had vanished, lost to the current and the darkness.
“I’ll come home on the river, Sabine.”
But no – surely he hadn’t. Not yet. All she’d seen was the cap. It might have belonged to some other soldier. Édouard had told her to have faith, and so she would. She needed something to live for, something to believe in. Something more than fairy boats, or war. Or France.
She’d seen no man with a slow smile, a soft voice. No rowboat had come, patched and painted red. That’s what she would believe in. That’s what she would live for.
A cap was just a cap, after all, a fleur de lis nothing but a pretty symbol.
Douglas Campbell‘s fiction has appeared online and in print, in publications such as Many Mountains Moving, Every Day Fiction, The Northville Review, Vestal Review, and Short Story America. Douglas lives and writes in southwestern Pennsylvania.