I learned about the transfer before noon. The small stripes of light had
reached the windowsill. My major came in and kept one hand on the doorknob while
gesturing to me with the other to keep my seat. He wanted to know if the hogwash
from Marseille was ready yet. I pointed to the halfwritten sheet still in the
typewriter. I could go when I reached the end of the page, he said.
"And the dispatch from LagnysurMarne?" I asked, surprised.
"Someone else will have to do it. You're needed elsewhere."
I pressed my knees together under the table. In those days, many people were
being sent to the front.
"I'm being reassigned?"
"Rue des Saussaies has lost a translator." The major ran his hand down the
left side of his uniform coat. German Horseman's Badge, War Merit Cross. He said
he'd do all he could to get me back. I shouldn't worry, he said; my transfer
would be only temporary.
"What happened to the translator from rue des Saussaies?"
"He was run over and killed last night."
I flinched. "Partisans?"
"Of course not. The guy was drunk, and he went staggering over a bridge.
Because of the blackout, the patrol car saw him too late. Unfortunately, he
didn't die right away. Horrible. Anyway, the request for an interpreter wound up
on my desk. You seem to have a reputation in rue des Saussaies," the
major said with a rare smile. "They specifically asked for you."
My back stiffened. I glanced across the room toward the wall map, scale
1:500,000. Arrows, hatching, the plaster rosette over the door, the remains of
cloth wallpaper from the time when people still lived here. My desk, the French
dictionary, badly chewed pencils. I was going to miss the lovely view out over
the line of roofs to the west.
The major looked at me gloomily. "Finish the Marseille thing. Then take
the rest of the day off. You start over there tomorrow morning. You'll be back
in a few days. Those folks aren't particularly fond of strange faces."
I stood up and saluted; the major absentmindedly raised his arm. I remained
standing even after he left the room. The sunlight came through the window and
cast a shadow like a cross on the wall. All at once, I was cold. I buttoned my
top button and grabbed my cap, as though I was about to leave. Then I put it
down again, lowered myself onto the chair, read the French original, and began
typing the translation with two fingers.
You could have gone another way, I said to myself. How careless, to walk down
rue des Saussaies, of all streets. The blackandsilver uniform appeared quite
suddenly, right in front of SS headquarters. A brief exchange of words. Did he
ask for a light? You'd better be careful. Only translate expressions from the
dictionary. Stare at the table. Never look anyone in the face. Forget whatever
they let you see. In the evening, you'll go to your hotel; in the morning,
you'll report for duty on time. Until they don't need you anymore. Then you'll
go back to your major, who doesn't want to do anything but enjoy the city and
relish the role of the conqueror and leaves it to you to push arrows and numbers
around and adorns your reports with his name. As long as you remain
indispensable, he'll keep them from sending you into the real war.
The Pont Royal was standing in water up to its shoulders, only half a meter
shy of the highwater mark set in 1700 and something. Fishermen leaned over the
parapet wall. The stones were already warm, and people were sitting around with
halfclosed eyes, facing the sun. When they heard the hobnailed boots
approaching, some turned away. I plunged into the hubbub of the Latin Quarter.
The more people there were, the less conspicuously foreign I was. The waters of
the Seine raged in the steel framework of the Pont Solferino. A stout Oriental
woman at a produce stand picked up three miserable apples and felt them, one
after another. Not far away, a private first class and his comrade stood gawking
at her. A silver halfmoon glistened on her forehead.
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