Marcelle threw pebbles off the steep cliff that rose over the Dover Narrows. It was a clear May morning. The air so crisp, the sea so still, she could make out the English coastline in the distance. It was there, in England, where all her dreams resided. She imagined herself beautiful, married, useful. Her blonde, blue-eyed husband would enhance her ordinary features making their daughters the sight she never was.
She would be gainfully employed too. Her brief medical training with the Americans had awaken a passion in her she never knew existed. Since then, over seven years since she first attended the nursing camp for women, she had devoured any medical book she could find in the neighboring city. Her notebooks, full of anatomical illustrations, brought to life procedures with details that lived up to every word she read. In another life she might have been a distinguished professional, known for her bravery and exceptional medical skills during the war. In this lifetime, however, she was simply a daughter. A daughter tending to the incessant complaints of her mother, Clotilde.
Yet, on mornings like this she escaped, traveled through time and space to a different existence. Perched over her childhood cliff like a white bird she allowed herself the indulgence of daydreaming. The only peace afforded to a brilliant mind in such a desolate village.
It was the sound of the sputtering engine that interrupted Marcelle's trance. Jumping to her feet she turned to witness the inconsistent rising and falling of the biplane as it maneuvered through the sky in failed attempts to regain control. Though high enough to not place her in any immediate danger, Marcelle edged away from the cliff. Arching her neck backwards, she squinted, only the tops of the heads of the two passengers could be made out.
Suddenly, as the plane began to emit thick black smoke, the two men rose from their seats and stepped onto the left wing. This imbalance of weight caused the plane to lean. It descended at an even faster rate, and in one failed swoop propelled both men to the rocky landscape below. Their bodies, flaying in the wind, grasping at bars no longer there, cascaded towards the earth in a rain of human flesh.
Marcelle stood still, struggling to sort the unexpected event. She was a woman so enclosed in a life of routine she wondered if she had fallen asleep on the cliff and conjured the entire scene.
Finally free from human constraints the plane dipped its nose, arched its back and took a final dive into the sea. Marcelle rushed towards the edge of the cliff and watched as the plane was swallowed whole by the waiting waters. She stared until the ripples quieted, and the sea regained its still veneer. The shock now settling she remembered the men, the fallen men, and took off in their direction.
Hiking her sweeping skirt above her muscular thighs Marcelle ran as if she dodging enemy fire. Her medically-inclined mind raced through every possible scenario she could imagine. Head injuries were her primary concern, she expected several broken limbs, but hoped that neither had a punctured lung. She could nurse just about anything back to health given the wealth of experience her sickly mother had afforded.
Once, back when her mother could still walk, they happened upon a mangled hare whose missing rear leg had caused extensive blood lost. Clotilde had demanded that Marcelle leave the animal to its own fate, but the girl simply could not. In an unprecedented act of disobedience she scooped up the hare, ran home, and provided such quality care that the animal recovered. That is until Clotilde broke its neck, peeled off its skin, and boiled the animal for their evening meal. That had been the last time Marcelle had disobeyed.
These memories flooded back as she surveyed the land in search of the men. Her eyes came across a military-style boot, and then an aviator hat, and finally the twisted body of one of the men. The pale man lay in a puddle of blood and sand. He wore a leather jacket and urine-stained gray trousers. Marcelle's eyes surveyed his body carefully. The man's right eye appeared to be punctured, his left shoulder was visibly dislocated, and from the back of his head blood gurgled out gently. She lifted the man's shirt, noticing a well-framed body, with massive bruising already starting to form. All this she determined fixable. As long as he was still breathing she was confident that she could save him. Tearing her dress apart she made makeshift bandages to stop the bleeding at multiple sites before rushing to locate the second man.
Just a few feet away from where his comrade lay, Marcelle found a second body sprawled on the ground, his face buried in the sand. Quickly she turned the man over only to realize that he was breathtaking. Though his face displayed a broken nose, bleeding lips, and darkening bruises, he was absolutely stunning. His blonde hair laid plastered over his forehead in a mixture of fluids and sand. Marcelle gently cupped his head as she raised his eyelids eager to discover the color of his irises. It was then that she noticed his pupils were dilated. Grazing her ear near his lips she realized he was not breathing. Immediately she sprung into action as if her own life was linked to this fallen stranger.
Gathering sticks she quickly sparked a fire, warmed large stones near its heat, and pressed them against the man's abdomen with pressure. She lay on top of him placing and removing her weight in intervals, raising and lowering his arms, and administering forceful blows to his back and chest. Finally, a faint sputter shut out from the man, easily missed had Marcelle not been holding her own breath in worried anticipation. When she heard it she yelped with glee, embracing the man's head as she rocked him to and fro.
For the next several hours Marcelle dedicated all her efforts to the survival of both men. She dragged them back to her home in a makeshift stretcher she had once used for her mother. Placing them in the spare bedroom she nursed every wound she could find and left them to rest.
Her mother sat in the corner of the now darkened sitting room waiting for her to finish.
You think you can save everybody, everything. How many times do I have to tell you that you're not a doctor? You should have gone to the city to get help or left them out there. But you want to be a hero, don't you? You think they'll reward you. Love you. Stay around. Men never stay, they're like dogs chasing the next best meal.
Marcelle remained silent. She cleaned the dirt she had dragged in, wiped down the counters, soaked the bloodied cloths in hot water.
You've always been foolish. Always had that bleeding heart that doesn't serve you any good. Like an idiot you waited for your dad for months. I'm scared to say that you might still have hopes he'll return twenty years later. Ha! If they survive, they'll get up from here and they'll leave. They'll return to whatever life they came from because that's what men do. You have to grow up, you're too old to still be playing nurse.
Still, Marcelle remained quiet as she prepared some tea to soothe her aching muscles and unsteady nerves. She had never experienced such chaos, such a rush of adrenaline. Her mind was going in a million different directions and although it was not their custom to drink tea this late, she thought the warmth and stillness would do her some good.
I'm talking to you, disrespectful girl. Look at what you've done! There's dirt and blood everywhere. You've dragged strangers in my home! It smells of death in here. That's what you've done! You brought death in my home just so you can pretend to be a doctor. If they die you'll be the only one to blame. There's no saving them.
I'm going to try, mere. They would have died on their own out there. At least with me they have a chance. I've cleaned every trace of them from every room. There's no dirt, no blood anywhere. I've made sure of that. There's no need to worry about anything, I will take care of it all.
Don't interrupt me. If people come looking for them what will they think of you? What will they think of me? Of this home? Only a whore brings strange men into her home, undresses them, and touches them the way you did.
It's what you have to do to find every wound. I had to...
What did I just tell you? I can see you've lost your sense but have you lost your manners as well? Is this what I have raised you to be? A disrespectful whore?
Marcelle remained silent.
Answer me! Are you a disrespectful whore?
Yes, you are! I saw the way you tended to the blonde one. The way you caressed his cheek, unbuttoned his shirt. I saw you looking. The dark one did not receive that attention. Do you desire him, you foolish girl.
Marcelle approached her with a cup of tea.
Get that away from me. What proper woman drinks tea at this hour?
The young woman turned on her heels to set the cup back on the table.
All this work, all that lust for what? For them to die anyway. Perhaps they'll have the same fate of your mangled bunny.
Marcelle froze. Every pour on her body rose in shock, in fear, in anger. She turned around slowly and faced her mother. Clotilde was weak. She sat limply on a worn wheelchair towards the back of the poorly lit room. Her hair, once as black and luscious as her daughter's, now remained in a low bun parted down the middle in an even cascade of gray.
Up until that very moment Marcelle thought she had loved her. She had cared for her all her life, had known her as her only parent, friend, companion. Now she was well aware that all she felt for her mother was duty, responsibility, and an incessant guilt that was both baseless and consuming. Wrath rose inside her as if she were the steaming kettle. She approached her mother slowly, deliberately, taking in her fragility, her spite, the bitterness that poured out of her with ease.
Leaning in towards her mother Marcelle raised her cup of tea and gently poured it directly on the clean line that parted her mother's hair. The woman screamed in agony as she tried to move away, too weak to escape her daughter. Marcelle continued to pour the hot liquid until not a single drop remained.
If you so happen to look upon them, you will envy that rabbit.
Weeks past uneventfully while the men slept. Once, a pair of soldiers had come by and asked the women if they had seen a biplane in the past weeks. Marcelle shared that she had. It was quite an exciting day for her as planes rarely crossed over her small patch of sky. She told the men she had followed it all the way to the edge of the cliffs until it was out of sight. Shared that she had wondered if it had made it to England. They thanked her and left as Clotilde observed her daughter in quiet terror.
Soon after Marcelle had begun to purchase male items from the neighboring city: clothing, shoes, shaving kits. Clotilde had even seen her remove pictures from the men's wallets and replace them with her own.
Early one summer morning, the blonde man began to stir. Marcelle rushed to his side. Clotilde could not make out the long conversation that was taking place in the room but by the time the pair entered the sitting room she knew what her daughter had devised. The man's name was Charles, but Marcelle called him Charlie in an endearing way. She made his meals, rubbed his feet, and took him on long walks every evening.
Clotilde learned that the pair were affianced and had been so for over a year before life had taken Charles away on business. They had planned to wed in London but his fateful trip had brought this unexpected tragedy into their lives. Thankfully Marcelle had cared for him and his companion, Francois, night and day.
Charles had absolutely no recollection of his adult life, much less of the tragic event that had led him to Marcelle. He walked around the house in a daze, silently navigating the maze that had sprung in his mind. He was kind, gentle, sometimes even affectionate with Marcelle. Yet, on more than one occasion Clotilde witnessed him staring into the mirror, lost, waiting for some elusive part of himself to arrive. He checked on Francois daily hoping the man would awaken to provide more clarity. In those moments, the black patch over Francois's right eye reminded Charles of his own luck and he would grow even more appreciative of Marcelle. He attempted to accept the life she had tailored for him, a life that hung on him like a borrowed suit. As for Marcelle, she was content. Although a part of her felt slightly deceptive, an even greater part felt joy, love, emotions so new and intoxicating there was no way she could forgo them.
On a beautifully crisp morning, the couple walked hand in hand above the cliffs when a plane flew overhead. The sound startled Charles and he quickly drew his hand from Marcelle's.
Is everything alright?
Charles panted. He walked towards the edge of the cliff and vomited his breakfast into the waves.
Charlie, something's wrong. Let's get back home quickly.
Something is wrong. Everything is wrong. You...here...the plane...it was here, we thought we could make it, we thought we could land it.
Charles heaved again, dropping to his knees in desperation.
Charles, Charles, come...come now we must go home.
Home? Home? I don't live here.
Charles looked across the landscape desperately.
I don't remember...I'm not from here...I live...you lied to me.
No, no, no, I saved you. You didn't remember anything, I feared the confusion would hinder your recovery, so I helped you, I saved you!
You could have search the nearby cities, you could have called the Levant, anything! Instead you kept me here! My family...Claire! My daughters...I have a family, a wife...they must be so...I have to leave this place, I have to...I have to get back to them!
Wait! Wait! Just wait Charles, please. You must consider it all, you were dying, the both of you were. I dragged you out of here! I rescued you! You weren't even breathing when I found you!
Yes, you rescued us! To make us your play things, dolls, puppets to fill up your empty life. You expect me to be thankful, to stay with you, to marry you when you stole my life from me?
You were dead, I gave you your life.
So that you could mold into your own. You're not well, neither you nor your mother. I'm taking Francois. I'm getting help.
Without warning, Marcelle rushed towards Charles with outstretched arms pushing him off the cliff. The man's last screamed cascaded with him, his blonde hair swaying in the wind, his blue eyes swallowed by the crashing waves.
Night had fallen by the time Marcelle returned home. She was unrecognizable. Her eyes were swollen, her cheeks stained with dirt and tears, her hands shaking uncontrollably. She entered the sitting room quietly to find her mother sitting in a dark corner.
He remembered, didn't he?
Marcelle rushed towards her mother, collapsed at her feet and wept. The old woman picked up her daughter's head and placed it on her knees as though she were still a child. She patted her dark hair gently, remembering her own.
I tried to warn you. Did he leave?
Marcelle shook her head slowly.
The young woman nodded, burying her face in her mother's knees with shame.
Your father left the same way.
Marcelle raised her face to look into her mother's. Clotilde patted her head back down onto her lap.
Sometimes that's the only way.
What will you do when the other one finally wakes up?
Marcelle pondered the question in silence before answering.