Fannie H. Gray
On our honeymoon, I never even noticed an acrid smell. The langoustines, the salade gourmande, the tartare de boeuf, the shimmering, perspiring glasses of sublime rosé, all served with the efficient careless attention which is inherently French. All the while, French woods that had escaped bombings and marauding splintered and hissed, seemingly spontaneously combusting.
If I had taken off my shoes, pressed flesh to earth, would I have felt the stampede, the hooves, and claws, frantically searching for safer soil? If I had strolled from the glorious auberge, would I have noticed the townsfolk buying hoses and pitchforks, the Peugeots queueing for petrol?
I let you pour me another glass of La Chapelle Godonne.
Secretly, I seethed when you couldn’t put the rental car in reverse in Marseille. As you pounded the wheel, your face a proper Provencal rouge, I calmly left the vehicle and using my rusty schoolgirl French beseeched the fire truck driver—s’il vous plaît aider! Aider!—until his partner patted my hand. A steep hill—a road that should only run one way, but France, n’est-ce pas, and so he left his hulking vehicle facing our car—Oui Madame! I practically yanked a trembling you from the driver seat, let the virile Jean-Luc back our ridiculous SUV down the hill, so his fire truck could pass. Infirm, on the corner, you clutched your back, coughed phlegm into the street.
Later in Arles, you howled—I took it for indignation—No parking! No parking! My back, my back! Only a wavering haze, like an oil slick smudged across the morning clouds, indicated suffering on the horizon.
Finally, asleep in our ark—Corsica Linea ferry—we left the mainland and I thought perhaps you might be OK.
I preened in Corte, the rugged little mountain town, as the shopgirl insisted, Mais non! Tu parles bien! But when I looked for your admiration, I saw heat and ruin. We could not outrun it.
The doctor back in Maryland wants to run more tests. It might be fluid, perhaps pus in the right lung. It could be a tumor. Bien sûr, this would explain the back pain.
In your hospital room, horror-stricken, we watch Toulon in flames. I hold your grey hand; how did we not know?
Fannie H. Gray writes fiction inspired by her southern American childhood and her abiding affection for dark fairy tales. Her most recent work has been included in The Molotov Cocktail, The Moon City Review, and Stanchion. All of her published work can be found at www.thefhgraymatter.com. @fannnster on Twitter. Her flash fiction piece “Incendies” received Honorable Mention in Cleaver’s 2022 flash fiction contest judged by Meg Pokrass.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #40.