To Feed Such Hunger
After Christmas the foreign students changed, at the University in Dijon. The hungry Poles with too-bright eyes, who lived through the warmer months on international fellowships and pride in unlisted attics, went back to Warsaw. The few pretty American girls who bothered to come to such a stuffy little town stopped baffling Frenchmen by their bold naïveté, and left the tea shops and the cafés for Evanston, Illinois. The cool long-limbed Swedes smelled snow, and hurried back to their own ski slopes.
Now, instead of a dozen accents in the halls of the Faculté, you heard only one, and it was German. There were Lithuanians and Danes and Czechs, but German was the tongue.
The girls all looked much alike, thick and solemn. They walked silently about the streets, reading guidebooks, in flat broad shoes and a kind of uniform of badly tailored gray-brown suits.
The men, most of them, were young and pink-cheeked and oddly eager. They sat lonesomely in the cafés, and seldom spoke to one another, as if they had been told not to. The Dijonnais students, who were still fighting the war of '71, when the Boches had besieged the town, were politely rude to them, and they seemed to be scattered like timid sheep, longing for a leader. It was only at the University that they dared band together, and almost before the first class of the new semester, they elected a Prussian the president, as if to prove that there at least they were united and strong.
I had not much to do with the student body as such; my own life with Al was too absorbing and complete. But I couldn't help feeling surprised to learn that Klorr was our new leader.
He was quite unlike any of the other young Germans, who seemed to dislike and almost fear him, in spite of their votes. He was as tall as they, probably, but there was something about the set of his bones that made him seem slight and weak. He wore his brownish hair rather long and slicked back against his head, not in a fair brush; and he dressed in bags and tweed jacket like an Englishman, not in a stiff short coat that showed his hips, and narrow trousers, as his compatriots did.
He had a thin sneering face, too, all of a color with his pale slick hair, and it stuck forward on his neck, instead of being solid between his shoulders.
He was, I think, the most rat-like human I have ever seen, and at the same time he was tall, well set-up, intelligent looking . . . a contradictory person. I dismissed him from my thoughts, as someone I would not care to know, and most surely never would.
I noticed him, though, because he and a girl distracted me several times in class before I knew who she was. I was surprised to see him with her. She was one of the big pallid ones, and I'd have thought him the type who would marry her finally but spend his "student days" with someone small, light, exciting.
The two of them always seemed to be sitting right in front of me in classes, and always very close together, so that her thigh pressed hard against his and her large face almost touched him. They would whisper all through the lectures. It annoyed me. I found it hard enough to keep my mind on the professorial drone about the preposition "à" without having to sort it out from their moist Germanic hissings.
Usually they were reading parts of letters to each other, and usually Klorr sneered coldly at the girl, who seemed to be defending what they read.
Then at the end of class they would go silently out of the room, she carrying all his books as well as her own. Often she carried his thick topcoat, too.
I found myself interested enough in them to tell Al about them. They seemed such a strange pair to be so intimate, and I was very naïve then about the many visages of love.
One night at supper Madame Biarnet tore through her meal faster than ever, pushed her plate away and the dog Tango off her lap as if she had come to a great decision, and in her slowest, richest Burgundian accent asked us to make up our minds. At once, she said. There and then.
Her voice rose like a general's. Her long nose whitened. Her beautiful hard shrewd eyes, deep in wrinkles but young, looked at us with infinite enjoyment of the comedy she was playing.
"The time has arrived," she said harshly, and we wondered in a kind of stupor what joke she would tell, how soon she would burst into a great gust of laughter and release us from her teasing. We were used to her by now, but constantly fascinated, like a magician's petted nervous rabbits.
Monsieur Biarnet stirred fussily, and popped a vigor pill under his little waxed gray moustache. "Eugénie," he murmured. "Enough. Don't shout so, please! My nerves tonight . . ."
She slapped, absently, fondly, at his shoulder. "Make up your minds! You Americans are dreamers! Are you going to stay or go?"
"Go where? Why? Do you want us to go, Madame?" We were stammering, just as she planned us to, and we must have looked quite flabbergasted at the thought that we might want to leave our snug small home at the top of the house.
She shrieked, delighted with her game, and then wiped our eyes with the napkin and said softly, almost affectionately, "Calm yourselves! It's about renting the rooms. We'll have a new guest tomorrow, and if you plan to stay she shall have the third floor room on the street, next to Jo's. And if you . . ."
"But of course we plan to stay . . . as long as you want us."
"That's the ticket, then, she said in pure gutter-French, with a malicious grin at her husband.
And as always, as if to prove to himself or someone that he at least was a man of the world, the upper world, he murmured in his most affected way, "Charming! Charming children!"
Madame whispered to us before noon dinner the next day that the new boarder was in the dining room. She was Czech, a ravishing beauty, daughter of a high official, someone completely sympathetic and destined to be my undying confidante.
Of course, it was Klorr's friend. Her name was Maritza Nankova, and she spoke when spoken to, in French somewhat better than mine was then. She was very shy for many days, but I could tell that she was lonely and envied me for being gay and happy and in love. I was almost completely uninterested in her.
She spent much of her time alone in her room when she was not at the Faculté. Now and then we would hear her solid shoes climbing the stairs late at night, and I would feel a little ashamed of my own fullness, and think I should go pay her a visit, talk with her about her country and her family and clothes . . . things girls are supposed to talk about together.
A few weeks after she came, there was a minor drama in the Biarnet ménage. We could only guess about it. Madame's voice was more hysterically high than ever, and her nose whiter in her red face; and quite often her husband and Jo did not eat at home, or sat icily silent through a meal. Finally one day Maritza was not there for lunch, and as if she had pulled a cork out of the situation when she went through the little door into the street, all three Biarnets started talking at once to us. We felt flattered, of course, and somewhat dazed. Even Jo waved his delicate hands excitedly, and shook back his silky hair with dainty fire.
Madame, they all told us, had been asked by La Nankova to make a place at the table for her friend Klorr. "No, no, and again no," the two men thundered in their small ways.
But he will pay well," Madame said. "Even filthy Boches must eat."
"Not here. Not with us. The food would choke us," they answered.
"But," she said, "La Nankova says he is very powerful, and important already in Germany . . . and what if someday he comes here the way they they came in '71? Then," she went on triumphantly before anyone could interrupt, "then we will be glad to have a friend in him."
The enormity, the basically female realism of it, floored us all for a minute.
Then Monsieur, with a flattering little bow to me, and a slight twist of his moustache to prove himself not only masculine but always the boulevardier, said, "It is bad enough, Eugénie my dear, to have to see that well-behaved but clod-like peasant virgin twice a day, sitting in the same room with you and Madame Fischer. The addition of a yearning Prussian swain is more than I could bear."
Madam laughed delightedly. "Virgin, yes," she agreed shrilly. "Swain, definitely not. Klorr is much more interested in finding a good meal than exploring Maritza's possibilities. She has the appeal of a potato."
Jo flushed. "Papa is right," he said, and I thought that at last he had expressed himself, even so circumspectly, on a sexual matter. But he went on, "Mademoiselle Nankova is dull enough. No Boches, please, Belle-mère."
Madame looked gently at him. He usually called her Madame. It was as if anything more intimate to this coarsely vital woman who had taken his dead mother's place would betray him and his father too, and he was endlessly cruel to her, the way a young person can be.
She laughed again, then, and banged on the table. "I give up," she cried. "You are all against me . . . yes, you two smug American lovers, too. No Boche. If we starve, we starve together. But," and she looked maliciously at her husband, "when Paul is away on business this Klorr can eat here. My stomach is not so delicate as some, and Klorr may not be bad-looking, even if he is a German."
So she won, after all. We celebrated the ambiguous victory with a little glass of marc all 'round. It was the nicest lunch Al and I had eaten with them, because we felt we were no longer well-mannered paid-up boarders, but confidants of the family. We wished Maritza would stay away oftener, or always.
The cold winter dragged into Lent. Klorr came a few times to the dining room, always when Monsieur was away, and if Jo was caught there he ate almost nothing and excused himself. The German sensed it, I think. He was very charming to Madame, and was an entertaining talker, except for his lisp. He had a way of leaning across the table after a meal, rolling bread crumbs between his white knobby fingers, with his small strange eyes fixed almost hypnotically on his listener's.
He paid little attention to me, and none at all to Maritza, but seemed much attracted to Jo when he was there, and to Al. Al met him a few times in cafés, and told me Klorr talked mostly of the coming renaissance in Germany. Klorr said it would be based on a Uranic form of life.
I looked up the word Uranism. I think it was Uranism. It seemed to agree with what I had seen of Klorr, at least in his attitude toward Maritza. She never spoke at the table when he was there unless he addressed her by name, and then she flushed and seemed almost to tremble. It was a strange kind of love affair, I thought.
I grew more curious about her, and determined, tomorrow or tomorrow, to see more of her, go chat with her in her room. She never looked either happy or unhappy, except now and then after a meal, when she and the Madame would go into a kind of orgy of ghost stories.
Then Martiza's face would flush under her white skin, and her large dull eyes would be full of light and almost beautiful. She would talk rapidly in her up-and-down Czech accent, and laugh and clasp her big strong hands in front of her.
Madame loved it, and sometimes matched her, tale for tale, and sometimes let her go on alone, with her strange village stories of ghouls and charms and lost cats miraculously found, and of what it meant to sneeze three times . . . that sort of thing. Maritza's eyes would stare into the steamy air, and sometimes they almost frightened me with their mute superstitious mysticism. There was the same thing about them that I had never been able to accept in some Wagnerian music, a kind of religious lewdness, maybe.
One night Al and I came through the silent streets quite late, midnight or so. We had gone to a movie and then sat drinking café-crème and listening to the exhausted music at the Miroir, hating to go out into the raw cold Dijon air.
We saw that Maritza's two windows were brightly lighted, with the curtains not drawn. It was strange; always before, ever since she came, they had been dark when we unlocked the little door. We both spoke of it, and then went on tiptoe up the stairs, forgetting her for ourselves.
Much later, I opened our windows. There, across the deep silent courtyard, her inner window still shone, beside Jo's dark one. The curtains were not pulled.
It upset me a little. I stood watching for a minute, but I could see nothing. I got back into bed. I would surely go see her tomorrow, I thought . . . maybe ask her to have tea with me.
I was asleep when the knock came on the door. We both sat up sharply, like startled children; it was the first time anyone had ever come to our door at night. Al clambered out, and ran on his bare brown feet to open it, with his heart probably pounding like mine, from sleep and bewilderment.
It was Jo. He stood there in a mauve woolen bathrobe, carefully not looking toward me in the bed, and asked softly, "Is Madame here? I beg her pardon a thousand times, and Monsieur Fischer's . . . but if Madame could perhaps come." He was stammering, speaking very softly with his eyes cast down.
"What's wrong?" Al asked bluntly, taking him by the arm. I don't know what he thought had happened.
"It's Mademoiselle la Nankova. She still has the light on in her room, and I can hear her. But I don't know whether she is laughing or crying. It is very soft. But it is late. I'm worried. I thought Madame Fischer, as a woman . . ."
"I'll come, Monsieur Jo," I said, and he bowed without looking at me. We heard his light steps down and up the zigzag stairs, and then the firm closing of his door on the landing across the courtyard.
All looked upset. "Why not ask Madame Biarnet?" he asked. "I don't like your being called this way. It's cold tonight It's . . . it's an imposition."
"You're jealous," I said, while I put his warm bathrobe over my pajamas. "You'd like to go yourself."
"That pudding!" he said, and we both had to laugh, even while I hurried, and his eyes blinked at me with curiosity in them as well as sleep and crossness and love.
The light was on over the top zigzag of the wide stone staircase. I went quickly, wondering what was wrong with the girl. She seemed such a dull lump. Probably she was homesick, or had cramps . . . I knocked on her door, and while I listened I could hear a little rustling in Jo's room; he was listening too, close there behind the safety of his wall. There was no sound at all in Maritza's room. I knocked again. Finally a chair was pushed back, and I heard what I thought were here firm steps across the room.
But when the lock turned and the door opened, it was Klorr how stood there, with a white napkin held to his mouth.
I don't know what I thought; I was not embarrassed for either of us, and for some reason not surprised. We stood looking at each other, and I could see that his eyes were not pale at all, as I had thought, but very dark above the napkin. He kept patting his lips. In the room behind him I could hear Maritza breathing in long soft moaning breaths, monotonously.
I started to say why I had come, but he interrupted me in a smooth courtly flow . . . I was so kind to worry . . . just about to call me . . . our little Czech friend seemed upset . . . he had stopped for a few minutes in passing . . . undoubtedly a small indisposition that I, a sister creature, could comprehend . . . a thousand thanks, goodnight, goodnight. And he was off down the stairs, silent and unruffled as a rat, with the napkin in his hand.
I went reluctantly inside. The room was bright with light from an enormous bulb that hung, unshaded, over the middle of the big bed. I went quickly to the curtains, and covered all the windows, like a fussy old nursemaid or like a mother protecting her daughter's modesty, for Maritza was lying there in that light, naked except for a few crumbs and grapeskins on her belly.
When I had with my instinctive gesture made things more seemly, I looked full at her.
The bed was covered with a big white sheet, as if it were a smooth table, and she motionless in the middle, lying with her arms at her sides. I was surprised at how beautiful her body was, so white and clean, with high firm breasts and a clear triangle of golden hair, like an autumn leaf. There were no pillows on the bed so that her head tilted back and I could see pulses beating hard in her throat. Her eyes were closed, and she kept on breathing in those low soft moans.
I leaned over her. "It's Madame Fischer, Maritza."
She did not answer or open her eyes, but at the sound of my voice she started to tremble, in long small shudders that went all over her, the way a dead snake does. I spoke again, and when I picked up one heavy arm it fell softly back. Still I felt she know everything that was going on.
I was not exactly puzzled . . . in fact, I seemed at the time to take the whole thing as a matter of course, almost . . . but for a minute I stood there, wondering what to do. Maritza's face was very hot, but the rest of her was cold, and shaking now with the long shuddering ripples, so I covered her with a coat from her armoire, after I had pushed the grapeskins and crumbs off her.
They were only on her belly. There were several crumbs down in her navel, and I blew at them, without thinking it funny at all. I put them all in my hand, and then onto a plate on the little table, before I realized how strange it was.
It was set up by the fireplace, with a linen tablecloth, and placed precisely on it were a plate of beautiful grapes with dark pink skins, an empty champagne bottle and a fine glass, and a little round cake with a piece out of it. It looked like the kind of table a butler arranges in the second act of an old-fashioned bedroom comedy, except that there was only one glass, one plate, one fork.
I knew Klorr had been supping there, while Maritza lay naked on the bed and moaned for him. And I knew that he had put the empty grapeskins on her unprotesting flesh without ever touching her.
My hands felt foul from them. I went to the armoire, to look for some alcohol or toilet water to rub on them, but I could see none in the neat bareness of her shelves.
I ran silently as I could to our rooms. Al was lying in bed, reading, and when he asked me mildly what was going on, I suddenly felt a strange kind of antagonism toward him, toward all men. It was as if Maritza had been ashamed in some way that only women cuold know about. It was as if I must protect here, because we were both females, fighting all the males.
"Nothing . . . it's all right," I said crossly. "She's got the jitters."
"Oh," Al said, and went on with his book.
I ran down the stairs with a bottle of eau de Cologne. I thought I would rub Maritza with it. I closed here door, and pulled the coat gently off her.
"It's Madame Fischer," I said, because here eyes were still closed.
I rubbed in long slow motions up her arms, and up her legs from her ankles, the way I remembered being massaged in a Swedish bath when I was younger. Gradually she stopped making the moan with every breath, and the unnatural shudders almost ceased. Her face was cooler, too.
"You are better, now, Maritza," I kept saying as I rubbed the toilet water into her fine white skin. "You are all right now."
It was like quieting an animal, and had the same rhythm about it, so I don't know how long it was before I saw that the door had opened silently, and Klorr stood there watching me.
Maritza's eyes were still shut, but she felt something in my hands, although I did not feel it myself, and she began the long hard shuddering again.
Klorr was staring at me with jet-bead eyes, and hate seemed to crackle out of him in little flashes, like electricity in a cat's fur. I glared back at him. I must have looked fierce, because as I got up slowly and approached him, he backed away and out into the hall by Jo's door. He had the napkin in his hand, and he held it out to me. I closed the door into the girl's room.
"What do you want?" I asked, speaking very distinctly. I could hear my own voice, and impersonally I admired my accent. I am in a rage, a real rage, I thought, and rage is very good for the French accent.
Klorr smiled weakly at me, and wiped his lips again.
"I was just passing by," he said for the second time that night. "I . . . how is our little Czech friend? I appreciate your unusual interest in her. How is she, if I may be so bold as to enquire? Tell me, dear Madame . . . what is wrong with her?"
His smile was stronger now, and he was speaking smoothly, with his eyes staring scornfully, sneeringly at me.
Then I drew myself up. It sounds funny even to write about now, or think about, but I actually did draw myself up, until I seemed much taller than he. And very distinctly, in the most carefully enunciated and completely pompous French that has ever been spoken outside a national theatre, I said, "What is wrong with her? Mademoiselle Nankova, Monsieur Klorr, is suffering from an extreme sexual overexcitement!"
Those were my words, which sprang unsought for into my furious brain. Yes . . . they rolled out magnificently . . . une sur-ex-ci-ta-tion se-xu-el-le . . . syllable by mighty syllable, even to the final "le," like a quotation from Racine.
Klorr looked away. He bowed stiffly, and then as if he could not stand it any longer he threw the napkin at me and ran again down the stairs, as silent as a rat.
When I went back into the room, Maritza was curled up like a child in the middle of the bed, crying peacefully into her hands. She was rosy and warm, and I put the coat over her and turned out the light and went home. I felt terribly tired.
Al was asleep. He never asked me anything about it, and I never told him.
The next day Maritza was the same as always, shy and dull as if she did not know me, and in about a week she left, without saying goodbye to any of us. Madame said that she and Klorr, by a very odd coincidence, were going to be in Venice together for the Easter celebrations.
"Love is hair-raising," Madame said. "Imagine that great lump in a gondola."
"I for one am thankful," Monsieur said, rolling his eyes first toward the good God in heaven and then toward me. "Now we can resume our old chats, without having to wait for La Nankova to keep up with us, and without having to escape her questionable Prussian acquaintance. It will be excellent for practice, for perfecting the accent."
Jo looked at me, and before we lowered his soft eyes in their deep curling lashes, he smiled in an abashed way at me, and murmured, "But Madame's accent is already excellent at times, Papa."
And I burst out laughing, and could tell nobody why. Whenever I say those words in my mind, I must laugh now, in spite of the feminine shame I feel to think of that table laid in the bright room, and the strange ways of satisfying hunger.
-- M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 408-418.