Chapter Seven – Rémi's Gift
My town, La Chapelle-Faucher, like many towns, has a past. Most towns are proud of their history, they boast of it in museums, memorials, and restored buildings, but my town is not like that, my town hides it away, it pushes it down and prays that history will never emerge again. Nobody speaks of the past which they are ashamed of. But there are always exceptions, and one of these was my mother, she did all within her power to keep the fading past alive, she told my sister and my sister told me. And I'll tell anyone who asks.
My town is cursed. People will try and pretend that it's a sanctuary, that it's a haven, untouched by the outside world, with its greed, manipulation and war. But I think it's true that no place is safe from the scourges which shatter a land into many pieces. In the 14th century the entire town of La Chapelle-Faucher was burnt to the ground in the 100 years war. This is why none of the main buildings or houses date before this period. The only buildings which were spared from the flames were the Chateau and the Church Notre Dame de l'Assomption. For the people who had lost everything – their homes, village and even their families – the church became a source of comfort. Watched over by the saints who had miraculously survived the fire, they felt safe within the stone halls. And La Chapelle-Faucher began to rebuild, from the charred remains of a broken village, homes rose up again and joyous voices rang from that blessed building.
But it's not like that now. The church is empty and the last person who filled it's rafters with song lies beneath the ground. Because another event makes up this towns muted past. On the 2nd of July 1569 Gaspard de Coligny entered the town followed by a large crowd of Protestants. They then proceeded to round up two hundred and sixty men, women and children and took them to the church. Between the hours of 9am and 2pm they were slaughtered one by one. In five hours two hundred and sixty residents were dead, the church aisle ran with blood and the survivors never again placed their trust in religion. From that day forward nobody entered the church, they left it to crumble and two hundred and sixty screams which everybody had heard, but not one single person responded to, were silenced once again.
"So, they think that it's cursed with the spirits of the murdered people?" Rémi leaned towards me, scratching his chin but grinning.
"Pretty much," I muttered, surprisingly irritated by how amusing he apparently found this.
"So nobody goes there?"
"No," I shifted, "Nobody talks about it…and nobody ever mentions religion…or God…or the men who died in his name." I had never seen another person in that building but me and my sister, and although this made it special, it saddened me beyond words.
"Cursed this! Cursed that!" Rémi flailed his arms wildly as he spoke. "Those villagers pretty obsessed with demonising things for people who don't believe in God!" He smirked and as usual I found myself following him.
"LINDER! DUPONT!" I leapt to my feet immediately, but Rémi remained seated, one arm relaxed upon his knee. Lambert was before us, breathless with disbelief. Far in the distance I could see the rest of the battalion marching across the wide open plain, away from us. The entire clearing where we were seated was empty.
"Yes. Yes that is correct, DuPont! Glad you're finally with us!" He yelled as he marched towards us. I winced and looked down. "Did you not notice THE ENTIRE BATTALION OF FOUR HUNDREAD AND EIGHTY TWO MEN GETTING TO THEIR FEET?!"
"Calm down," Rémi sighed, stretching and yawning. "We're coming."
"You two are a CONSTANT thorn in my side, you understand that?! Why must you INSIST on disobeying orders?!" Lambert raged as Rémi made his slow assent.
"I didn't realise everyone had gone…" I muttered, which even to me was shockingly true. I looked guiltily at Rémi, but to my absolute horror he was laughing.
"You'd be pretty bored without us, huh, Lambert?" I took a sharp intake of breath as I witnessed Lambert's already considerably pink face turn purple with rage.
"If it wasn't for Brun I would have left you here! You would have liked that, hmm? Abandoned in the middle of Russia!" He stormed towards Rémi and lowered his voice, "You can be assured, Linder, that if that idiotic giant hadn't informed me, I would be over there marching with a spring in my step."
"Ouch," Rémi winced as Linder drew away and to my surprise grasped my arm and dragged me with him as he marched.
"Come on, you beast!" He yapped, as I tripped and staggered in an effort to keep up with him. "Follow your prey!" But Rémi was already beside me; he had taken my arm in his own and skipped merrily. He leant into me and his voice breaking with laughter said,
"This is nice isn't it, hmm, Lion cub?"
We eventually caught up with the marching masses and fell in line beside Anton; he glanced at us and grunted,
"You're lucky I'm here, boy-o." His deep voice was barely audible above the thundering sound of boots against mud. "Lambert would have just left you, you know? Just follow me from now on." But 'following Anton' was a near impossibility for me, in fact it was with great difficulty that I kept up with the battalion at all. I had done plenty of walking around my village, aimlessly wandering through the woods and across the fields. But this continuous constant movement was alien to me and in my mind much more suited to my brother, the tall, strong masculine type, rather than the runt of the litter. However, Rémi remained beside me all the while. How he managed this I have little idea, it placed him directly out of position and disrupted the entire battalion's order, so the officers must have been aware of it, but Rémi marched on happily and unmolested.
"They've given up on him," Anton muttered to me one instance. "'Let him march wherever he likes, hopefully he'll get blown up at the next battle and rid us all of his disobedience.' " But I found this unlikely. Rémi had continuously and quite openly made the decision not to fight. He was absent during all training, he very rarely carried anything that even resembled a weapon, and although we had not yet had another encounter with the Russians since Alma, I highly suspected he already had a plan of action as to how he would avoid the next clash. He had also recently taken it upon himself to involve me directly in these bunking expeditions. So while on one side I was eager to escape with Rémi, as myself and most of the army had dubbed me 'unfit for war.' Anton, who although had laughed in the vineyard and decided to 'fight by not fighting', seemed to have changed his mind and made his primary concern moulding me into the perfect soldier. Unfortunately for Anton, more often than not Rémi succeeded in this little battle.
However, his most notable victory for me was the time when we weren't avoiding anything at all.
Perhaps it was because I had been talking about the church and it had been in my thoughts, but that night my dreams were filled with a figure whose face I had only read of in books, and of whom no statue will ever be made.
The Church again, except this time it was filled with flowers, bright blue petals blooming between benches, in the rafters and around the body of the framed man. Something else was amiss, a silver mist seemed to cloak the inside of the place, and through it the silhouette of a woman moved in the distance.
"Hello?" My voice hung and quivered in the fog, I felt it resound all around me.
"Child." Her voice was sweet and wonderful; the one word left me elated.
"Beauty draws a person in," she spoke, her words were like a song. "But there is so much more to discover without beauty clouding our minds." She emerged from the silver mist and I stepped back instinctively. Her face was scarred, disfigured, covered with sores and red blotches, her hair too was cut awkwardly, great clumps were missing and the remainder hung limply.
"Rose of Lima," I gasped and moved towards her, my hand reaching out unconsciously. She smiled and fingered the crown of violet roses on her head.
"You…disfigured yourself with pepper and lye…because you were so beautiful."
"Beauty is a distraction," she said determinedly, pulling the petals from the flowers, then her melodic voice returned, "I did it to help people, child."
"You hurt yourself," I stammered, and it hurt to look at her broken face, not because it was ugly, but because of what it meant.
"Sometimes," she said as she turned away into the mist, "that is the only way."
"St. Rose!" I gasped, bolting upright.
"St. Rose…? Ahh! Even in your dreams? Adorable! Adorable!" It was Rémi, he was crouched beside me in the tiny cramped tent, looking down at me and beaming. "Was she nice? I hope she was nice." I looked up at him deliriously, my mind still reeling from being so violently rocked into reality.
"Rémi…" I croaked and put my head in my hands.
"Sorry, lion cub, I didn't mean to startle you."
"I-It's fine. I just-"
"-but there is something I just must show you!" He yapped and jumped to his feet.
"W-What?" I blinked up at him as he grasped my arm.
"Come on!" He said hurriedly in hushed tones, his eyes darting around the tent. "Put your uniform on, we're going outside."
"What…really?" I slurred as he threw a boot at my chest.
"Yes, really," he smirked, then winked as if he found the entire situation terribly amusing. "You might want to do something with your hair too; you know I love the whole lion thing but…" I groaned and raised a hand to my head, patting down the awkward tufts that stuck out untidily. "Now, hurry up, we don't want to awaken the kraken!" He said in a deep mocking voice as he exaggeratedly tiptoed over Anton's snoring form. "The kraken! A creature known only to awaken from his stuporous slumber in order to pillage for food or to copulate with unattractive members of the opposite sex – ah!" He yelled out in surprise as the apparently very awake Anton seized his ankle, sending him staggering backwards, flailing wildly, and landing in a heap beside him.
"A man tried to sneak up on me during the Battle of Montmirail, you know where that left him?" Anton grunted as he rose to his feet above Rémi's twisted form.
"Please enlighten me," he winced.
"In several pieces."
A few minutes later I had helped Rémi to his feet and soon I and, much to Rémi's displeasure, Anton were fully dressed. Anton too was distinctly annoyed but muttered that, "If you're taking the kid I'm coming too." So we exited the tent together and made our journey, as quietly as possible in heavy boots, across the camp. The lookouts were surprisingly easy to pass by. This frustrated Anton to such a degree that Rémi and I had to physically drag him away to prevent him confronting them of being 'a useless bunch of idiots who the Russian's have every right to shoot.'
Once we made the slight decent from the hill in which the camp was situated we were freer to talk.
"This better be bloody good," Anton muttered.
"I never asked you to come, muscle head," Rémi replied immediately, "This is for Léo." He spoke the sentence with such uncharacteristic seriousness that I felt a chill pass over my body which was not due to the cold night air.
"Well whatever it is, it better be luminous cause we ain't seeing nothing in this light," Anton said sceptically. He was right, the sun had not yet risen and the darkness was so thick I could barely see two feet beyond myself. Instead I walked head down, eyes on the dry grassy plain which seemed to go on forever. Rémi remained quiet as he led the way and from then on the only sounds which broke our monotonous hike were distant birdsong and Anton's frustrated, inaudible mutterings.
I was just beginning to drift off when I collided painfully with Anton's back. He grabbed me before I fell and said,
"Heads up, the nutter has stopped." Rémi – said 'nutter' had indeed stopped. He was surveying the distance silently, then he grinned and lowered to the ground. He pressed his palms against the ground behind him and leant back casually.
"Perfect spot." As usual Anton looked at him as if he'd lost his mind.
"Yes." Anton and I looked around. There was nothing, quite literally nothing, a vast expanse of darkness surrounded us and I was pretty sure the plains spread out with it.
"You woke me up for this?" Anton was wringing his hands as if preparing to strangle him.
"I'm sure he has something planned," I said, forcing a weak smile and scratching my neck awkwardly.
"Thank you, lion cub," Rémi nodded, then patted the ground next to him. "Take a seat." I shrugged at Anton and moved towards Rémi. Anton remained standing beside me, surveying the distance dubiously.
"I'm sorry I woke you," Rémi said quietly, after a little while, "But it'll be worth it, I promise." And as I looked to his beaming face it glowed with fresh golden amber tones.
"Ahh," I hugged my knees to my chest. "The sun!" The ground before us, which had been cloaked by darkness only moments before, was illuminated with streaks of gold. Far in the distance, rising over the hill was the sun. Although, Russia's land was mostly vast expanses of flat, dry grassy plains, I had not seen the sun rise since coming here. The last time I had remained awake long enough to watch it had been on that day, the day I decided to leave La Chapelle-Faucher. But this sunrise itself wasn't particularly special, the shapes it cast upon the plain were oddly beautiful, and the sudden white sky, streaked with gold and amber was in a way, enchanting, but a sunrise was what it was.
"So what?" Anton shrugged. "Don't tell me you dragged us out here to watch a freakin' sunrise."
"It's…It's…wonderful," I choked, as a gentle breeze passed over us. Rémi and I had noticed something that Anton had not. Rémi had not led us to the sunrise, it was only a tool, it illuminated his true gift to me. A building. It looked tiny in the distance but it was the only structure for miles around so it was immediately visible. It looked more like a castle, great brick walls and windowed circular turrets but protruding from the top, glimmering in the distance, was a spire – and a cross.
"Eh? Some grotty building?" Anton was squinting into the distance, but Rémi was watching me and grinning broadly, as I turned to him our eyes met and I thanked him without words.
As Rémi and I rushed to the building Anton's pace slowed and he looked around constantly.
"If you don't want to come with us you can go back to the tent," Rémi's voice rang, but Anton grasped my shoulder and muttered in my ear.
"I'm just wary, this is their territory, and we're not exactly inconspicuous." He was right and we should have in all commonsense returned to the camp while we still may have remained unspotted, but now the air was filled with that sound which for so many years I had willed with all my being to one day emanate from my church. Bells. A soft, bright ringing that drew me closer to the building. This church was alive, Rémi had brought me to a living, breathing church, one I did not have to watch from afar with a forest between us, the plain was open and the bells were ringing. Before I knew it I was running towards it, and Rémi was beside me, watching with delight.
"I can hear singing!" I cried, laughing all the while. "They're singing, Rémi! The people are singing!" Then my hand was upon the handle of one of the colossal wooden doors, and Rémi's was on the other and together we swung them open.
When I think back now, the image…the memory of that place comes back to me perfectly. I remember the hall, the architecture, how it was so different to my church, my old, dying, decrepit church which in its static muted tones I cherished so dearly. This church was alive with colour, paintings of sacred scenes and divine men were upon all the walls and the colours streamed into the great domed roof, so that even the light from that sunrise filled the hall with oranges and blues. While I had sat and imagined the halos of light on my men, in here the figures heads were framed with gold. And gold was everywhere; even the floor beneath my feet was gleaming.
But none of that is important, none of that matters because talented men could create all that again. My memory of that moment has one ruling image, or should I call it a feeling, one that cannot simply be recreated by architectures or learned men.
My pace slowed as I watched them, there must have been at least a hundred people, maybe more. Families – old women, grasping their walking sticks as they struggled to remain standing, mothers with babies in their arms and father's grasping the hands of sons. They were all on their feet, facing him – the framed man – and singing joyously. I don't know Russian, so I had no real idea of what they were singing about, or to whom, but as the united voice rose up and filled the radiant hall I felt as if my own heart was souring with them. I walked slowly, breathlessly down the aisle, mouthing words I did not know, while all around me the people sang and my cheeks were wet before I realised that I was crying. When the music lowered to a lull and the people sat in unison they began to whisper and some were turning and pointing at me. I stopped suddenly and became immediately aware of how I must have looked to this well dressed congregation – not strangely clean like Rémi, my blue uniform was torn and faded, far too large for my form, it hung off me awkwardly, and there were my boots thick with mud, trailed on the gleaming floor. Then I realised that Anton was beside me, guns swinging from his sides, without a word he seized me by the waist with one bulging forearm and led me from the building.
We were lucky, these were the first group of people we met who were curiously abiding to the presence of their enemies, and no word was ever spoken of it by the senior officers. Perhaps because a couple of hours later our battalion had moved on, and when the worshippers did emerge it is doubtful that anyone would believe them that a young French soldier stood in their church and cried.
That was the day before we reached Sebastopol. If I had known then what was to come, I would have begged to remain there forever, but I didn't, so I left the church with Anton and contentedly made my way back to camp, as Rémi threw his hand around my shoulder, laughing merrily.