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.
Excerpted from April in Paris by Michael Wallner Copyright © 2007 by Michael Wallner. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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