0 comments

Crime Historical Fiction Sad

14 July 1811

Noon

Between Hachette and Landrecies

    The man woke up groggy, his face in the mud a few inches from the edge of the river. He sat up, seeing stars, a dizzying pain exploding in the back of his skull. He gingerly touched the area of pain and found an impressive goose egg, sticky with half-dried blood. He got up, one hand on a tree trunk to steady himself. His legs were wobbly causing him to lean back against the tree to brush grass and twigs off his clothes. Of the felt purse that used to hang from his belt, only the strings remained. Where was he? He looked upstream and downstream and did not recognize the river. His brow furrowed with effort to remember. His brain hurt and he still did not know where he was. With horror, he realized he had forgotten his own name. He picked up his hat and put two thin pieces of straw inside it, a long one and a short one. If he drew the short one, he would walk downriver. If he drew the long straw, he would walk upriver. Someone was bound to know who he was! Tossing both sticks aside, he staggered unsteadily downstream.

14 July 1811

10:00 p.m.

Sassegnies

    Angélique stood on her porch, hands on her hips. Where had that man gotten to this time! He had left on their horse Duchesse early that morning to sell the cloth he had woven. Landrecies was 13 km away and its Saturday morning market had been a good source of income. Had he stopped at a tavern and drunk the profits away? Angry and sick with worry, she went back in, slammed the door and barred it for the night. Jean Baptiste could sleep off his liquor in the hayloft. She checked on her children. Jean, 7, Raimonde, 4, Tintin, 3 and baby Joseph, 1, were sound asleep. Her eldest, Désiré, 9, was still wide awake. She sat by the edge of the bed and her asked, “Where’s Pa? Is he out drinking again?” Angélique ruffled his head and replied, “I don’t know, Love. Try to go to sleep!”

15 July 1811

Dawn

Landrecies

    The man reached Landrecies. His stomach rumbled. He followed the River to a bridge and climbed the stairs to find himself on Main Street. He made his way to the Church and knocked at the clergy house next to the Church. “I am Charles Dubucquoy. What can I do for you, my son?” The man blinked… Jean-Baptiste! He remembered his first and middle name! But his last name was still gone!” He explained his predicament to the priest, who invited him in and sat him down in the kitchen. He warmed water on the stove and cleaned the man’s wound. He asked, “Do you know how to garden?” The man shrugged, powerless to say. He said, “I think my name is Jean.” The priest took him into the garden and asked, “What would you do with this overgrown mess?” The man grabbed tools and set to work. He still did not know who he was but caring for a garden remained as a muscle memory. The priest nodded approvingly and said, “You are welcome to stay in my home until your memories start returning, so long as you are willing to help with chores. I will pray for you, Jean!”

22 July 1811

Sassegnies

    Angélique, baby Joseph hitched on her hip and her other four children hiding in her skirts, asked Father Fisseroles if he had a minute to spare for a talk. The priest sent the children into his kitchen and asked his housemaid to give them lunch. Angélique explained how her husband had gone missing, how their horse Duchesse had arrived at their house alone. She explained that she had sold the horse at market, but that the money from that sale was quickly running out. “I won’t be able to pay our next rent. I don’t know what to do!” The priest counseled her to have Désiré apprentice at the local sawmill. It was dangerous work, especially for a 9-year-old, but he could work his way from menial tasks to the rank of pit sawyer. Angélique exclaimed, “What about his schooling?” The priest placed a paternal hand on her shoulder and replied, “I know he is a good reader already. He can borrow any books he wants from my own library and get his learning that way! I will find work for your other children as they grow up. My maid Madeleine is getting old. She is still a wonderful cook and housekeeper, but her eyesight is going bad and she struggled with lack of strength when doing the laundry. If you want a job as my laundress and seamstress, I will pay you every other Saturday.” Angélique fell to her knees and kissed his hands. He helped her back to her feet and handed her his handkerchief to wipe away the tears that were freely flowing down her face. She gathered the dirty laundry hamper, called out to her children, and went home to her cottage.

1815

Landrecies

    Jean mopped his brow. He had just harvested raspberries from Father Dubucquoi’s garden, Under his care, the small parish house garden had flourished and included some of the prettiest roses in Landrecies. The priest had also bought a big patch of land on which a small red brick dwelling was set back from the path. He allowed Jean to dwell in that tiny house, so long as he worked the land and gave him half of the harvest as rent. Since he lived alone on that land, Jean had no one to feed but himself. Instead of giving Father Dubucquoi half his harvest, he kept only ten percent for himself, gave 50% as rent to the priest, and gave the 40% remaining to anyone in the parish who fell upon hard times. Snatches of memories came back to him from time to time, but only during nighttime dreams. He was not sure whether to trust the dreams or not. The most intense was the clickety-clack of a weaving shuttle. He would sometimes wake with his hands in motion with an imaginary shuttle. The sound of spinning wheels made him miss someone. He saw snatches of her face in his dreams, but her name escaped him.

1818

Sassegnies

Angélique straightened up, her fists pushing against the small of her back. Washing Father Fisseroles’ sheets in the fast-running waters of the Sambre was hard work, even with help from twelve-year-old Raimonde. Of all her children, Raimonde most looked like Jean. How she still missed her husband! Désiré was now 16, a pit sawyer, just as Father Fisseroles had predicted. He had a fierce temper and still harbored resentment that bordered on hatred for the father he was convinced had deserted them. He was starting to court Marie Catherine, one of the village girls. Fourteen-year-old Jean Baptiste still thought girls had cooties. He was a handful, always fighting with the other boys in the village and talking big about enlisting in the army. Tintin was eleven years old and her favorite. His imagination was as wild as he was. The boy could charm crows out of the trees and knew more herbal lore than anyone else she had even known. Joseph was eight. He had no memory of his dad and always got angry when his siblings mentioned their memories, so eventually, they all stopped talking about him. Several widowers in the village tried to court Angélique over the years, but she rebuked them, stating that until she had proof that Jean had died, she was not in a position to marry again.

Landrecies

1820

Jean missed his old friend and mentor. Father Dubucquoy had died a year before. On the anniversary of his death, Jean put flowers on his grave in the cemetery. The new priest, Jean Baptiste Demoustier, was young. He had not contested the will of Father Dubucquoy that gave the land and house as an inheritance to Jean. He now owned his land and house and the widows in town were attracted to his sudden wealth. His memory had not returned and his integrity and dream memories of the woman who haunted his dream kept him from paying any attention to any of them. He continued to struggle, snatches of memory here and there, a small cemetery on a lane out of a village, a tow-headed baby boy named Joseph he felt certain was his own child, the village of Poix-du-Nord, whenever he sold his produce on the main square, smelled of childhood rambles. But he yet had to bump into anyone who knew him and could tell him who he was.

Sassegnies

March 1826

Désiré had asked Marie Catherine to marry him. They met with Father Fisserole and with the Mayor of Sassegnies to determine a mutually agreeable date for their wedding. The mayor threw an unexpected hurdle in their plans when he announced that he needed either his father present at the wedding, or a proof of his date of death. Oh… His dad had gone missing fifteen years before and no one knew of his whereabouts or whether he was still alive or dead… What was to be done? The mayor explained that if witnesses from the village were to go to the nearest notary’s office in Berlaimont, and to testify to his father’s “unknown whereabouts” status, and if he brought back the notarized paperwork, this would allow for the wedding plans to proceed. It had to be people in town who were often in contact with Angélique, his mother, and could vouch for the date at which his father Jean had disappeared.

Landrecies

June 1826

“Sassegnies! Ponchaux! My last name is Ponchaux!” Jean woke with a start. Along with the name of his village, he had recalled his own last name! His wife was Angélique! He had five children! He needed to get out of bed and go! He knew everything! But he hesitated. Fifteen years was a long time! How had they fared in his absence! The thought that they might believe he had intentionally walked out of their lives tore at him. Could he just waltz back into their lives like that, as though nothing had happened?

Berlaimont

July 23, 1826

It had taken a while to convince the men who knew his dad to agree to testify that no one had seen his father Jean for fifteen years. Finally though, he had his four witnesses! The five of them rode to Berlaimont from Sassegnies by horse drawn buggy. In front of Judge Constant Delcroix, the petitioner of the document, Désiré Ponchaux, introduced his witnesses: Charles Honoré, a farmer in Sassegnies in the land bordering the house they rented had been Jean’s oldest friend. This testifying felt like admitting that his best childhood buddy was dead, and he could not help but weep. Dennis Lambert stood with his cap in his hand. He had chosen the job of game warden so he could be out in the woods and fields and live a half-wild life away from people. He was intimidated, standing in front of a judge of the peace, and kept nervously twisting his cap in his hands. Jean Baptiste Flament who owned the land and house the Ponchaux family rented was a rotund bourgeois who was used to hanging out with notaries and judges and doctors. He was an impatient man and could not wait to get back to Sassegnies. He had other horses to whip and this was a big inconvenient hassle! Joseph Genit, the last witness, was a humble dairy cow farmer with a small herd. His wife made cheeses which he sold at market. All four swore and attested to the fact that Jean Baptiste Ponchaux, the petitioner’s dad, had not been seen in the village of Sassegnies since July of 1801.

Landrecies

August 3rd, 1826

Jean had waffled and hesitated, unsure how he would be received after such a long absence. He had counseled with his parish priest and sworn him to secrecy. He wanted to make this momentous decision on his own time and on his own terms and did not want village gossip to spread and arrive in Sassegnies before he did. The strawberry harvest had kept him occupied, followed all too quickly by raspberry season! There was never a good time to go to Sassegnies. Part of him ached to do so, but part of him feared what he would find once there! As he bathed in the tin basin in his small house, he wondered if he was doing the right thing by planning this trip to Sassegnies. Would they even know him? The next day would tell.

Sassegnies

August 4th, 1826

Today was the big day! Désiré and his childhood sweetheart Marie Catherine were getting ready for their walk to the village hall and to the church to be married. Angélique was helping the bride’s mother and both were cooking up a veritable feast! Joseph was underfoot, trying to snatch candied almonds and silver candies off the dessert dishes. Raimonde was flirting with the village boys. Tintin was helping to set up trestle table. Désire was sad that his closest brother Jean Baptiste had not received permission to come back from his regiment in Brest, Brittany to attend the wedding. Part of him wondered how their life would had turned out had his father Jean not disappeared. He still resented his absence, but the anger had dimmed. He shook the sad thoughts away. Today was his wedding day. His bride looked like the Virgin Mary inside Saint Martin Church:He had always loved the Madonna and Child statue! The whole village was out in their Sunday best to celebrate with them. His mom was radiant with happiness. It had taken her a long time to relearn how to smile!

Jean made his way on foot from Hachette to Sassegnies. He remembered everything! To give himself courage, he decided, once he reached Sassegnies, to go reflect and pray at the cemetery among the family graves. A new stone in the family plot gave him pause. Jean Baptiste Ponchaux, 24 September, 1774-14 July, 1811. His legs gave out from under him. They all thought he had died on the day of his disappearance. He took his hat off and brushed sweat off his brow. How could he suddenly reappear in their lives? He could not do this to them. And yet, he needed to see them… just one last time… then he would disappear again! Did they even still live at the same cottage? Had they moved elsewhere? Not a soul seemed to be in the village. It was Friday. Farmers should have been in their fields. There should be women at the river, washing clothes. Children should be running in the streets. No one… And then the bells of Saint Martin rang, and it seemed like the whole village emptied onto the Church square. Jean hid, suddenly feeling that he should not be seen. Angélique! How radiant she looked in her Sunday best! And was that Raymonde all grown up, throwing rose petals at the bride and groom? Jean sank to his knees. How grown his eldest son Désiré looked, and how proud with his bride at his side. He had no right to spoil their happy day, did he? But how he longed to do so! His heart ached. His arms wanted to hold Angélique.

He staggered away from the village Church, walking the familiar shortcuts through town so as not to be seen. He walked back towards Hachette and found the spot where, fifteen years before, someone had bashed him on the head and stolen his purse. He sat down heavily on the ground, took his hat off and grabbed two sticks, one short and one long. If he pulled the short straw, he would go back to his life in Landrecies. If he pulled the long straw, he would sleep under the stars and would somehow muster up the courage to go visit Angélique the next day and to explain everything. He pondered the memories of the kind priest who had taken him under his wings when he felt so lost and did not know his own name. Such hospitality and kindness, he would never forget! He sent a silent prayer of gratitude to Heaven for his old friend. He closed his eyes and once again, trusted his fate to luck… and drew the short straw.

June 02, 2021 22:35

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

0 comments