The Village of St. Fiacra by Townsend Walker

A rising sun lit the gold cross atop the church steeple flooding the fields of yellow flowers surrounding the village. Its squat grey stone buildings were nestled in the rolling hills near the Marne.

Sunlight streamed through Agnès’s window warming the two room cottage crowded by a slumping reed ceiling. Eyes half open, she saw her two small boys curled up in the corner of the larger room and her mother at the opposite end.

Hearing Agnès stir, her mother announced, “Michel never came home last night."

The smooth sheet on the other side of the bed confirmed the accusation.

“Damn," Agnès hissed. "What’s he up to now?"

“What was that, dear?" her mother asked.

The boys slept on, oblivious as puppies.

* * *

Michel heard a rooster crow and bounded from bed.

Hell. I should have been home. And the sheep. Today’s the day they’re supposed to be sheared.

He gazed longingly at the downy Thérèse, tousled tawny hair radiant in the morning light; a sleeping angel. He pulled on his pants and clogs, grabbed his shirt and ran out.

* * *

Gaston, opened up the café, looked out and noticed a gangly figure with unkempt ginger hair and no shirt scampering across the square. Michel: third time in two weeks.

The café had been on the square for fifty years, its glossy blue and glass front a sharp contrast to the stone buildings around it--a crèmerie and a boulangerie. The interior of the café was long and narrow; a zinc bar ran the length of the right wall; tables and chairs, the left. Etched mirrors on both sides lit the room with endless reflections.

A low, medieval style church sat at the far end of this square. Some two hundred years after it was built, an ambitious priest had added a Romanesque tower and steeple. Facing the church from across the square was the town hall, a bust of Marianne prominent on its portico.

There was an obelisk in the center of the square, though the once-white memorial had aged badly. The plaque at the base of the monument listed forty names under the inscription Mort pour la France 1914-1918. The names ofThérèse’s father and Michel’s father were there.

Gaston had watched Thérèse and Michel grow up in the village. Best friends. The common tragedy of their fathers was the initial spark. Then in school they became allies against the you’re a bastard you’re a bastard taunts of their classmates. ow this.

* * *

Thérèse woke dreamily, wrapped herself in a blanket and padded across the room to the stove. The cat pressed against her warm ankle.

“Michel is always leaving before I get up," she complained to the cat.

* * *

Gaston, round head was crowned with a thatch of snow was munching a brioche and reading the newspaper when Thérèse opened the door to the café. He looked up, his bright blue eyes magnified by reading glasses, an expression of glad-you-were-able-to-make-it on his face.

“I didn’t think you’d need me early," she said, a pink glow spreading under her olive complexion.

“You’ll never guess who I saw running through the square this morning," Gaston winked, “Without a shirt."

“No idea," she said, and started arranging the cups and glasses she had put away the day before.

* * *

Agnès knew her mother wouldn’t let Michel’s absence go with only one comment.

“I told you he was a bastard," she said. “He’ll never amount to anything. Two children and I’m over here in the corner like an old potato."

“That’s not fair; Michel works hard. It’s not his fault the sheep got foot rot and we had to move in," Agnès said. “Besides, you know we don’t have to live like this."

“That’s enough," her mother said. “I’ll spend my money how I please. If I thought a bigger cottage was the answer . . ."
Agnès opened her mouth to say something, then closed it slowly without a sound.

Her mother said, “Weren’t you going to market this morning?"

* * *

The sun was setting when Michel returned from shearing. He needed a beer, but had a hard time getting in the café. Shepherds and farmers were crowded around the door. Thérèse was looking more desirable than when he’d left her that morning: tangled hair cascading over bare shoulders, hazel eyes dancing. But, she was flirting with Felix and the other shepherds.

He stood by the door. Gaston brought him a beer. “You were in a hurry this morning."

“Overslept," Michel said and took another swig. “But got there on time."

The beer had no taste, but he kept drinking and watching Thérèse. She didn’t seem to notice he was there, paying more attention to Felix. He envied his friend: single, no responsibilities, dark dusky looks, and if Felix had any money or prospects, his choice of any girl in the village.

* * *

It was night time before Michel stuck his head in the door of his cottage. “Where were you last night?" Agnès asked.

“I fell asleep in the pasture; I woke up in the middle of the night," he said, “but stayed away because I didn’t want to disturb your mother."

“And this evening?"

“I had to get the sheep settled back in the pasture. You know how skittish they can be after being sheared."

Agnès was incensed. She knew beer breath.

Her mother injected, “I hope you don’t believe that story."

“Stay out of this," Michel snapped. “This is between me and my wife."

* * *

A layer of low fog covered the village and surrounding hills. The rising sun turned the damp black night into a pearly dawn. Thérèse and Gaston were in the café getting ready for the morning crush. Michel stopped by for his coffee. Gaston was spouting on about the politicians in Paris. Michel nodded absently, drank up and left.

“Your cap," Thérèse called, and ran to catch him.

He continued to walk. She took his arm, lowered her eyes and said, “I’m sorry about last night; it was so busy."

His look told her it would take more than words.

She whispered, “Can you come by before supper?"

* * *

Michel was waylaid by Felix on the way out to his pasture.

“I need to talk with you about a special girl," Felix said.

He looked down at his clogs, abashed.

“Who is it? Marie, Suzanne, Colette? Tell me."

“How do you get a girl to be interested in you?" Felix asked. “What should I do?"

“Girls like things: rings, necklaces, bracelets, you know."

“But I don’t have any money."

“Then flowers, take her flowers. Look around, they’ re free," Michel said. “And maybe some chocolate. Michel thought, I wonder who it is. What chance does he have?

* * *

Toward the end of the day, Thérèse told Gaston she needed to go home for a couple of
minutes. She’d be back; she’d forgotten to leave milk out for the cat.

“Of course," Gaston smiled. “The cat."

In the square Thérèse saw the village priest walking towards the café. It wasn’t that long
ago he’d seemed like a giant; today he was small, hardly up to her shoulder.

“My child, may I speak with you?" he asked.

A queasy-dampish feeling crept along her arms and down her back. What does he know?
“What do you want to talk about?"

“A little chat, that’s all," he replied, then slowly made his way to the café.

* * *

The priest leaned across the bar to whisper to Gaston, “Tell me, my son, is everything alright here?"

“Certainly Father, what’s on your mind?" Gaston continued to wipe the counter.

“I don’t wish to start rumors, but I’ve heard things about Thérèse." He looked quizzically
at Gaston.

Gaston shrugged. “Have a Ricard, Father." And thought, if the 80 year old priest has gotten
wind of her affair with Michel, it’s gone on too long.

* * *

“Michel, it’s a beautiful ring," Thérèse said. “It fits perfectly, look. Quelle belle surprise!"

“I hoped you’d be happy," he said. “You’ ll think ofme when you wear it?"

Michel knew she was chagrined because all the other girls in the village had at least one
piece of jewelry and she had nothing. And more and more he sensed her impatience when
he left early, arrived late, missed a rendezvous. So when he saw the ring after getting paid for the wool: o one will miss the money, who knows how much I got; this will make it up to her.

Thérèse pranced around her cottage, hand held high, so the garnet refracted the light of the streaming sun, red slivers flashing around the room.

“I don’t know how I can ever thank you," she said, shooing the cat off the bed.

“And I’ve been thinking of how you would," he said, taking the cat’s place.

* * *

On Saturday evening everyone in town attended the dance in the square. Thérèse was showing her ring to her friend Marie when Agnès’s mother came over.

“Where did you get that ring, my child?"

“It was my grandmother’s," Thérèse said. “It was lost; I found it this morning behind the

“I knew your grandmother well; she never had a ring like that."

“Perhaps you didn’t know her as well as you thought," Thérèse retorted, and the two girls
walked away.

“What a bitch," Marie said.

“I hear she’s that way all the time," Thérèse said, “Nosy and mean."

“You’d think with all her money."

“What money? Thérèse asked. “She has money?"

“Her husband made it during the war," Marie said. “He was mayor then; managed to avoid
becoming a soldier, but supplied meat to the army and made a fortune. That’s what my father
said anyway."

Thérèse remembered what Michel had said about his mother-in-law, her concern with
appearances. And she had money?

* * *

A small band set up on the steps of the town hall. At the first sound of the music for the
bourrée, Michel took Agnès’s hand and joined three other couples. They whirled and twirled,
mindless of children and her mother as they spun. The music ended and they collapsed in
laughter in one another’s arms.

This was how Michel remembered the life they had before moving in with her mother.

Since then it had been: Shh, we can’t, mother might hear.

* * *

“Thérèse, isn’t that Felix over there?" Marie asked. “By the obelisk."

Thérèse shrugged.

“I thought you liked him," her friend said.

“Those light blue eyes, that smile, and those arms. Imagine them around you." Thérèse
shivered at the thought.

“I’m imagining," Marie said, “but why don’t you go over; maybe he’ll ask you to dance."

“What’s the use? He’s so poor his clothes are nearly rags. I’d be surprised if his whole
family has ten sheep."

"But, if he had fifty."

* * *

Michel finally broke away from the family gathering, telling Agnès he needed to go out to
check on the sheep. A couple of them looked as if they were developing scrapie.

Thérèse was waiting for Michel in a grove of oak trees at the edge of his pasture.

“Out here in the open?" he said. “From the road, anyone could see us."

“Who cares?" she said. “Besides, where have you been? I’ve been waiting for two hours."

“Family dinner went on and on, and you know how her mother is."

“Not really," she said.

Michel reached for her hand. “I see you’re still wearing your grandmother’s ring."

Seeing someone along the road, Thérèse let herself be cheered, raised herself on tip toe and gave him a long warm kiss.

“Thank you so much, Grand-maman."

* * *

Agnes’s mother was buying her morning bread when the baker’s wife came from behind the

“Madame, you know I am not a gossip, but when I see something like I saw yesterday, I have
to say something."

She nodded.

“I was coming back from a visit to my sister; you know she lives along the road outside of town.

I saw something moving in that grove of oak trees in the pasture. You know the one. Usually no one’s there, but this time, from the road, it looked like young children alone, so I thought I should check. One can’t be too careful about children these days."

She took a deep breath and wiped her lips with a handkerchief. “All I can say is that it was Michel and Thérèse, together; that’s all I can say."

* * *

Gaston was looking out on the square and noticed Agnes’s mother crabbing slowly toward the
town hall. He slid off his stool and walked out to her. They huddled in the shadow of the obelisk.

“Madame, a word. There is a situation. Together, I thought we might . . ."

* * *

A light knock on Thérèse’s door. She opened to see Agnes’s mother hunched over in her black
dress and shawl. The woman tilted her head to the side and looked up at Thérèse with a glinting eye.

“I’ve come to talk about Michel."

“Why talk to me?" Thérèse asked.

The woman pushed her way in and sat in the chair by the hearth.

“I don’t want my daughter hurt. Michel’s a bastard, but he’s her bastard and the father of my grandsons."

She waited for a confirming nod from Thérèse, then continued, “There is perhaps an arrangement a young girl like you would find advantageous."

Thérèse looked vacantly around the room, went over to the window, tugged at the curtain, took her time looking out at people passing in the street.

“I’m not sure."

Then she went over to the bed, picked up the cat and began to stroke it slowly.


* * *

Michel walked into the café. Thérèse was there laughing with Gaston and Marie.

“Have you heard?" Gaston cried. “Thérèse asked me to be the father of the bride."

Michel froze, looked at Thérèse who was miming I meant to tell you, then he forced out a congratulatory, “I’m sure you’ll be happy."

“Champagne for everyone," Gaston said.

“I just remembered I left something at home," Michel said.

He turned and bumped into Felix coming in the door. “So you’ve heard the good news?" And in a whisper, “I think it was the chocolate."

Michel continued out the door.

“And you’ll be my best man, won’t you?" Felix called after him.

He took a few steps then stopped, encased in the stifling town square. He watched a
small red and black beetle crawl over pebbles between the cobblestones, crossing from
the sunlight into the shadow cast by the church steeple.


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