Chapter 3 : Flanders Fields
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perfection by Ande at tda
“Do you play football?” Sam asked out of nowhere.
Victoire blinked. Her forehead was cold from leaning it against the cool glass of the bus window. It being the height of summer, the Muggles had invented the non-magical equivalent of a cooling charm, causing her to wish she’d brought a sweater.
She glanced at Sam. “Erm, are you referring to American football or English?”
“English football,” Sam scoffed. “I’ve done my homework, Weasley.”
Victoire smiled. “Oh, erm, no, football wasn’t huge at my school.” She straightened as the tour guide’s voice boomed over the non-magical sound amplifier.
Victoire and Sam were once again on a tour bus- this time, instead of searching for a natural (or supernatural, as Victoire had discovered at the Giant’s Causeway) wonder, they were on the trail of a tragedy built on the blood of men.
At the moment, however, they were both a little queasy from the immense amounts of Belgian beer they had sampled the previous night. Victoire was also regretting the chocolate-soaked waffle – served on a stick – that she had devoured for breakfast. There had also been an awkward moment the night before when Victoire had drunkenly mentioned that she had flown a broomstick before and gotten quite irritated when Sam had jokingly called her a liar. She had retorted by saying that he knew nothing about her – which was true, but not precisely Sam’s fault.
Victoire had written to one of her school friends asking her to research whether telling a non-relative Muggle who one wasn’t planning to marry about wizardkind counted as violating the International Statute of Secrecy. There had been a nastily publicized incident a few years prior where a Russian witch had confessed all to her Muggle boyfriend. When the witch left the man for a Siberian dragon tamer, the unfortunate bloke had posted everything his girlfriend had confided to him in a raging blog on the Intery-net, where it had been translated into seven different languages and become trending on Twit-twit, a website where Muggles could vent about their feelings in 140 characters or less.
Sam was lovely, but Victoire wasn’t quite ready to deal with the wonder and explanations which confessing would require. So she was quite pleased when he receded in his chatter, tipped his head back on the seat and began to drool a little, his water bottle slipping from his hands.
Victoire secured the water bottle and gazed out at the Belgian countryside. It was beautiful, with farms and little villages and towns. The guide had already pointed out the city of Ypres in the distance, and Victoire had been awed by how the highest points emerging from the city were those of the cathedral steeples. It was so unusual, she thought, to see a city not dominated by enormous Muggle buildings.
The need to come to Belgium had been encouraged by Victoire’s parents, who had once visited for two weeks when the children were all off at Hogwarts. Though many of the fellow travelers Victoire and Sam had met in Paris only saw Belgium as the route through which they would pass to get to Amsterdam, Victoire felt a resounding tenderness for the plucky little country.
In the first World War, Belgium had been the battleground upon which the great powers raged and tore. The German commanders had asked for safe passage through the tiny nation to begin the invasion of France, but the king of the time, Albert I, had refused to allow the Kaiser passage and had instead stood at the head of the Belgian armies in defiance. The Allied forces had come and fought a bloody conflict on the once peaceful and beautiful Belgian landscape. While England had paid her cost in men, Belgium had also lost her soil.
The guide had told the passengers how pieces of the war were constantly churning up around the region. Farmers would find pieces of shrapnel, helmets long ago fallen from the heads of their owners, bullets and guns. In many places, the angry metal roofs of bunkers still exploded from the overgrown grass. A few years prior, a farmer had even found three skeletons in their uniforms. Unexploded grenades were constantly being found when plowing the fields, and were placed delicately on the side of the road for a bomb squad to drive by and collect the dangerous things for dismantling at a nationally funded facility.
Victoire could not help but be struck at how deeply this war fought nearly a hundred years ago still affected the locals. Sam had been the one to find the tour and arrange it for them, but Victoire was finding it fascinating. She look a large sip of Sam’s water and gazed outside as the guide pointed out a grenade which was displayed on the side of the road. One blink and the tiny thing was gone, teetering in the dust.
Victoire nudged Sam as the bus rolled to a stop and the passengers began to rouse themselves. He looked a little green as his eyes peeled open.
“Where are we?” Sam asked groggily. The two American girls who were sitting behind them cleared their throats: Sam and Victoire were holding up the careful progression to exit the bus.
“Get up and let’s find out, silly,” Victoire said, passing him the water bottle and slinging her own rucksack over her shoulder. Sam maneuvered his lanky form out of his seat and they shuffled off the tour bus. Victoire promptly took off her sweater – the summer air was far warmer than the wondrous air vents inside. She looked around.
They were standing at the base of a fenced in hillside, with a gate emblazoned with several warnings. The hill was all green, quite overgrown, with trees whose leaves seemed to tickle the ground and beam in the sunlight. She looked down at her shoes and saw that they were a little darker around the edges: the grass was still damp from the rain the night before. The air smelt of freshness and soil.
On the other side of the road, there was a small farm with an eager donkey standing at the fence, staring over at the visitors. Sam nudged her and pointed to the donkey, swaying a little on his feet. The donkey brayed loudly.
“My father always bring ‘im some carrots,” the guide, Arnaud, said with a grin. He was younger, probably in his late twenties, and quite charming, with a little scruffy beard and very tight trousers. Apparently he was on holiday from graduate school and was helping out his parents, who owned the tour company, by guiding twice a week.
“Do you have any now?” Sam asked, but Victoire’s eyes focused on something rather worrying: alighting in the tree above the donkey’s head was a tawny creature, with a distinctively white letter tied to its talons. The creature cocked its head, looking straight at Victoire. She bit her lip. She knew that owl.
“Vezy good, vezy good, ve ‘ave everyone,” Arnaud said, gesturing to assemble the group from the tour bus. “Today is lucky, we ‘ave the ‘ill to ourselves for now. Velcome to ‘ill 60. Zis ‘as been preserved since ze battle in 1915…”
As Victoire listened, half her attention was being spent on eyeing the owl, which was clearly visible right behind Arnaud’s head. She was sure it was staring at her, and had her fingers crossed that the wretched creature wouldn’t come and fly right at her in its quest to deliver the letter. She wondered angrily how the bird’s master had known to find her here, since the last time they corresponded had been in Dublin. Undoubtedly Dominique had a big mouth.
Hill 60 was the site of a battle where the British had mined beneath the German forces in an attempt to capture and control the strategic highground near Ypres. The plan had resulted in many British and German deaths, including a few French soldiers as well, and was untouched and allowed to remain and become overgrown as a preserved memorial.
“You may go ahead and look around for, oh twenty minute shall ve say,” Arnaud announced. “Zere is a bunker up ze ‘ill zat way, and a crater lake in ze other direction. Look around for ze memorials and ze shape ze ground ‘as taken as well.”
The American girls, who were both blond and very loud, clustered up to Arnaud to ask travels him questions, potentially about what he was doing that evening when the tour returned the group to Brussels. Victoire stepped back, glancing at Sam as the other tourists began to slowly set up towards where Arnaud had said the bunker ruins could be found.
“Well, shall we?”
“You go, Vic,” Sam said. “I really don’t feel that well and vomiting on Hill 60 probably would destroy all the good faith the Belgian people feel towards Canadians.”
Victoire smiled. Earlier in the tour they had visited the monument to Canadian soldiers, which was called the Brooding Soldier and overlooked the town of Saint Julien. Many people had been thrilled to find out Sam was Canadian: the maple leaf flag on his rucksack had made Victoire and Sam many friends throughout their travels. Locals who heard Sam’s accent and assumed he was American immediately apologized profusely when the truth was uncovered.
“If you’re sure,” Victoire said, eyeing the owl.
“Besides, Arnaud gave me carrots,” Sam said brightly. Victoire laughed and watched as he looked cautiously before lumbering across the road towards the donkey, which was bobbing its head excitedly as its lips twitched outwards. She set off.
As the majority of the group were heading up through the path leading to the bunker, Victoire decided to seclude herself for the owl’s safe delivery. Glancing over her shoulder to ensure nobody was paying attention to her. She unlatched the gate leading in the direction of the little lake, and as she slid through a sign caught her attention.
Attention! Plusieurs soldats se sont mourit ici: si vous entrez, sois attentif aux memoires de se qui sont perdus.
Victoire frowned: she was sure the sign had not been there before, and none of the other tourists had mentioned anything. Shrugging, she stole through the trees down a little dirt path, pausing to allow the owl to perch upon her forearm, digging its claws into her skin.
“Hello, Mercury,” she said with a sigh, trying to stroke the owl’s round head. The creature nipped at her, and even as she swore at it she noticed it was leaving a little white present on her jumper. “You are a twat, just like your daddy,” she informed Mercury, and untied the letter from its talon.
Mercury sprang off her arm and settled in a nearby tree, peering down at her. She stuck out her tongue, feeling quite childish, and peeled open the letter. Something fell out: a snapshot, taken the year before, where a tiny Teddy kissed a tiny Victoire on the forehead and she beamed back up at him. Victoire stuffed the picture away and scoured the words.
Why haven’t you written me back? Sorry, I don’t want to sound like a twat. I was really worried until I popped by yours and Bill showed me your letter from Brussels. Hopefully Mercury manages to find you. I’m alright. Been working for George quite a bit while I figure out what to do next. Gran is okay.
I miss you. Yeah, and all that jazz. I’ve just been wasting away here like a pathetic little heartstruck teenager. I’m worse than Albus when he swoons after that other ickle firstie with his hair all mussed up. Did that make you smile? I hope so.
I miss your smile and your lips and kissing you. I miss your beautiful long legs and your soft skin. I miss the smell of your hair. Merlin, I sound like a bloody sap. But I do, I really do. I think about you every moment. I enclosed my favourite picture of us – you look friggin beautiful there.
I really, really want to see you, Vic. I’ve been thinking more and more about it and I want to come and see you. I can’t wait any longer. We need to talk, and it can’t wait until you’re home. Breaking up was a ridiculous mistake and I can’t believe I let you slip away like that.
With love, always,
Victoire felt very faint and light-headed. She could not bear to read the letter again, stuffing it into her rucksack without any pretensions to preserve it. She kicked her foot through the damp grass, wondering why the words, written in Teddy’s familiar and beloved hand, were so irritating.
The truth was, Victoire had moved on in a few short weeks. Teddy was Teddy – he was her first love, the first (and only, so far) boy she had slept with, one of her oldest friends. He was practically family. But Victoire had seen that there was so much beyond Teddy: he was brilliant, but he would hold her back, keep her smiling from within a cage built with metal wrought from a place of love. Perhaps it was the sheer excess of the word “I” which turned her off.
But there was something more sinister yet exciting than that. Victoire hardly dared admit it to herself, but she thought that perhaps she had, without trying, gotten over Teddy. His third paragraph, where he talked about her body in such a personal way, made her feel a little uncomfortable and, oddly, a little disgusted. Her body wasn’t his anymore to speak about like that, and the idea of him harboring these intense feelings for her was more annoying than endearing, as he must have intended.
She thought of her friends, who would have melted at such words. The girl she had been a year ago might have blushed and squealed along with them, but for now she was sure that the boy who thought she wanted to hear sappy and possessive endearments didn’t know her at all. She thought of Sam, his funny accent and his readiness to be teased about Canada, how they drank from the same water bottle and danced in Paris and giggled and teased one another. She smiled fondly.
No matter, Victoire thought decisively, deciding to put Teddy and the letter out of her mind. She scribbled back a quick response: Doing well, quite busy, nice to hear from you, and tied it securely to Mercury’s foot, wishing the grumpy owl best of luck on the long flight back across the channel. She was fairly sure there were resting places set up by the Ministry for inter-continental owls, so he should be well tended to. She stuffed a few European wizarding coins into a little pouch around the owl’s leg just in case.
Victoire was about to sneak out her wand to dry out her hair, which was sticking rather unpleasantly to the nape of her neck, when she caught wind of voices. She frowned, tucking her wand back in the rucksack and slinging her hair up into a high pony on top of her head, so the tightness pinched the skin around her forehead a little. She moved down the path, wondering who the voices could belong to. All the Muggle tourists had gone in the other direction, and there were no other vehicles parked by the entrance to Hill 60.
A little ways along the path and a foul stench hit her nose: something which smelled like the disposal bucket at the greenhouses at Hogwarts mixed in with the smell of a sink which has been clogged for several days. Victoire wrinkled her nose and held the tip of her recently shampooed hair to her nostrils instead. Breathing through the strands of lavender-scented ginger, she came through a break in the trees and gasped.
She had found the crater lake. It was a very round indent into the earth, with clear, still water trickling quietly on the shallow surface. Unnatural, not even man-made, technically, but a pretty scene nonetheless with the wind ruffling in the green leaves and the quiet stillness of the place, like a place that had known death.
But then there were the ghosts.
There were five of them, she thought, heart speeding up a little. Victoire didn’t mind ghosts: sure, the Bloody Baron had given her nightmares as a first year, but Victoire had carried on a healthy amity with Nearly Headless Nick, who had accompanied her on otherwise lonely and uneventful prefect patrols and regaled her with tales of the old days of jousting and magic. True, she preferred when ghosts announced themselves before suddenly appearing in her path, but are a general rule they were alright.
The five ghosts of Hill 60 glistened and shifted in the sunlight, so that she could not quite make out their individual features. She had never seen a ghost beyond the confines of the darkly lit school before. They were speaking amongst themselves in distinctly male voices, which must have been what Victoire had heard as she had woven through the trees, but their voices were just a little muted, a little too impossibly quiet, as if they spoke with a veil over their mouths.
The stench which Victoire was trying her best to ignore was coming from several platters of what appeared to be rotting meat and vegetables, spread out in an organized fashion on top of several large rocks. There was also a large cauldron which, as Victoire drew closer, she realized was full of beer, moldering and bitter in the hot sun. Her stomach lurched. She had, after all, consumed several beers of her own the night before.
The ghosts did not seem to notice her as she drew closer. Finally, she planted her hands on her hips.
“Erm, hello? You alright?”
Three of the shimmering, who were clustered together, whirled around and pressed their pearly hands to their mouths in shock. The two others, who were hovering near what appeared to be a dead squirrel, did not even jump.
The tallest ghost – at least, the one who Victoire felt looked like his head grazed a little higher than the others – floated forward slowly.
“Good day, pretty lass!” he said, circling about her very quickly and then coming to a full stop. He extended his pearly white hand. Victoire, feeling it was the polite thing to do, extended hers as well, and winced as the specter’s head lowered to kiss it, sending a sensation through her arm as if someone had dumped a bucket of cold water over her skin. “Must say, we’re mighty pleased ter see a witch in these parts, give-us a sound, lads?”
The two ghosts who he had been floating with responded with a quick chorus of “Aye!”
“Lieutenant Donnelly at yer service,” the first ghost said smoothly. “These here are Privates Dingle and Harrington – some of the finest soldiers de great Northumberland Fusiliers ‘ad ter offer!”
“Pleasure,” Victoire said, smiling at Lieutenant Donnelly. His voice had that comforting northern burr, though she could tell that he was making an effort to speak clearly and not speak too quickly. The syllables were soft and melted together like butter, giving the voice a lilting quality. From what she could make out of Lieutenant Donnelly’s translucent face, he seemed quite earnest and handsome in a puppylike way, with round eyes, a large nose and pale white ears which poked out from beneath his cap. She realized then that he was wearing a rather scruffy uniform, a handkerchief poking out of his pocket and a chest plastered with badges.
“Won’t yous come and dine with us? This week is midsummer, it is,” Private Dingle said, floating up to Victoire. He was very thin and wispy, but his voice held a kind of intrinsic sweetness and pleading that she could not resist. Looking around at the assembly of disgusting and rotting food, she felt a pang of pity for the ghosts and their poor attempts at a feast.
“I would love to,” she said, “though I can’t stay for long. I’ve come on a bus tour and they’re apt to come looking for me if I disappear.” She smiled, then glanced at the two silent, surly ghosts who were hovering about the dead squirrel. “Erm, hello! I’m Victoire.” She moved towards them.
“Oh nay, them’s just the Germans,” Donnelly said, sniffing loudly. “Can’t speak a word o’ English, them lot.” He seemed to glare at them. “Miss Victoire, yous said? Tis mighty lovely ter hear a fine English girl’s voice again.”
Victoire pulled her jumper from the rucksack and set it down on the grass, sitting on it and stretching her legs out in front of her where she began to feel the dew creeping at her jeans. “Are you lot soldiers from the war, then?” she asked Donnelly, taking a large sip of water.
Donnelly sighed: a little tickle of air seemed to flow from his pale lips. “Aye, we all perished ‘ere on ‘ill Sixty, when it all begun to go wrong. Been ‘ere ever since, ‘aven’t we?”
“We ‘ave,” Dingle said brightly. He was attempting to sit on the grass next to Victoire: every time he neared the ground, he seemed to float back upwards. Victoire noticed he was frowning, perhaps in frustration.
“So you were all wizards, then? Did you all go to Hogwarts? Oh, I’d love to know how it was back in the early twentieth century – of course, the portraits know, but they won’t bother to say a word.” She paused, realizing she was babbling, and took another long sip of water, spilling a little on her chin. The light trickled across the leaves framing the crater.
“Well, dere were more of us,” Donnelly said proudly. “De Northumberland Fusiliers – glory glory glory!” He sang these three words out. “I know more of us must’ve bin killed – we s’pose most of ‘em chose ter go on.”
“Don’t ferget the wisps!” Dingle said cheerfully. The other Englishman ghost, Private Harrington, floated over, bringing with him the heavy whiff of beer gone wrong. Victoire breathed through her nose.
“What are the wisps?” she asked, as Donnelly glared at the private.
“Ach, them wisps are the spirits of the comrades who was blown up during the explosions,” Harrington said meaningfully. “I think that after a death, the spirit lingers in the air fer a moment – just fer a tiny wee moment – and so the spirit takes the form of the body.” He thrust open the chest on his uniform, and Victoire gasped as she saw a deep, dark whole just above his heart. “Sniper bullet,” Harrington said proudly. Victoire thought of Nearly Headless Nick, who had somehow imprinted on the earth with only a scrap of skin holding his head to his neck. Harrington’s explanation sort of made sense.
“Now private, don’t alarm de lady witch,” Donnelly said warningly. “The wisps, them’s sad wee things, scared wee things. They’re stuck, but den again, so are us.”
“That’s really unfortunate,” Victoire said in her kindest voice, unsure of how to offer any comfort. She glanced at the Germans again. “It’s kind of you all to be mates, after, you know, the fighting and all.” She cleared her throat.
The soldiers proceeded to excitedly tell her of how at the beginning, as Hill 60 had been cleared out of the bodies, there had been a few more British spirits and a few more Germans. Harrington’s eyes gleamed silver as he spoke of the pranks and trials the two sides had continued to ignite on one another even as the ground smoked and caved beneath them. Peeves, Harrington explained, had been his inspiration for making the Germans’ lives as miserable as possible. Their comrades who had survived Hill 60 were quite amused and cheered by the antics of the ghosts.
But then, the war had ended. The remnants of the regiment had been stripped and shipped back to England, whether in fancy yachts loaned to the navy for the occasion or in black bags. The trenches around Ypres had emptied, the battered and bruised soldiers had returned to their sweethearts, and poppies had grown, nourished from the freshly laid bodies, fields of bodies and bodies. And the bodies had rotted and disappeared, and the poppies had gone, and the grass had grown again in the area about Hill 60. And the ghosts had remained.
Eventually, the spirits began to wander. They had all of eternity, after all, so what was the harm in seeing the world? They had been poor boys, the sons of miners, whose time at Hogwarts had only lasted until their father’s cough had consumed his lungs and the wee mouths at home were begging for their brothers.
“I wonder what did ‘appen ter me sister,” Donnelly said quietly at this. “I wonder it every day – I just ‘ope she didn’t ‘ave ter go ter the factory. There’s no good in that.”
When the spirits left, they never returned. Dingle said, wide-eyed, how he imagined they’re getting sucked up in the exhaust fumes of the mighty cities he’d heard had been built from the rubble. Harrington gloomily pointed out they’d most likely been whisked away by drafts over the Channel. He said he remembered coming over to Flanders and the great, beautiful winds above the deck on the ships.
Victoire listened intently. She thought even the Germans seemed to be listening, and wondered if perhaps they did understand a little more English than let on. When the colony of leftover spirits had diminished to so small a number, they had begun to band together, for companionship more than anything. Indeed, Victoire thought, listening to Donnelly reprimand Dingle, spending a hundred years in the same company must have been awful tiresome.
“What keeps you from going out and traveling?” she asked the soldiers, thinking privately that were she a spirit doomed to roam the earth for millennia, she would certainly not limit it to one overgrown battlefield.
After Donnelly spluttered something about the dangers and mysteries of the world beyond the lonely crater lake, Victoire excused herself and hesitantly approached the two Germans. She smiled at them, feeling quite pleased that she had spent so much time preparing for her time in the different countries.
“Erm, Hallo, Mein Name ist Victoire,” she said slowly, certain that the pronunciation had been brutally mucked up. The two Germans looked at one another, pale heads swiveling, and then back at her.
“Sie sprechen Deutsch, huebsche junge Dame aus England??” one of them said hopefully. Victoire bit her lip and shrugged helplessly.
“Taurig, uh, only a little,” she said, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. She smiled apologetically.
“Ach, vezy vell,” one of the Germans said with a quiet sigh. “My name Gunther, and this is Erich.”
“You do speak English!” Victoire said triumphantly. “Have you told the others?”
“No, no, ve prefer to keep zem, erm, how do you say, dumb,” Gunther said, an expression of amusement creeping across his pale face. Victoire giggled despite herself.
“I’m going to go to Germany soon, actually,” she confided. “I’m going to Berlin – I’ve heard such wonderful things about it…” Well, Victoire had heard how Berlin today was a hip, exciting city. She had heard how after the bombings of the Second World War destroyed the great metropolis, it had been rebuilt. She’d heard how memories to the victims of Nazi concentration camps now decorated the remains of the foundations of the Third Reich’s great, square and domineering structures, and how the Berlin wall was now famous for its graffiti. Gunther and Erich had missed so much.
“I grew up in Berlin, at Schoneberg,” Erich said quietly, his thick accent muffled. Victoire wondered how different the Berlin he had left nearly a hundred years ago must differ from the one she would be seeing. She wondered how it felt to live forever in death, to mourn a lost time.
“You should consider speaking to the lads,” she said instead, motioning at the English soldiers. “They’re quite nice. Surely you must be bored of only speaking to each other and any German wizards who come through.”
Gunther spoke up. “Zere are not many German wizards who come ‘ere, zough sometimes zey visit ze German cemetery,” he told her. “Zere are far more Eenglish like you.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Victoire said. The Germans excused themselves: they were going to go and listen in on the tourist group and laugh at their photographing of the most mundane, nature-created sites on the hill, Gunther explained, but they were pleased to have met her. Victoire smiled, watching them both swoop through the large plate of rotting, pungent vegetables before moving back to the northerners.
She glanced at her watch: it was enchanted to shout out and tell her when she was late (a tongue-in-cheek gift from her parents on her seventeenth birthday), but as she was traveling among Muggles a very strong silencing charm had been placed upon it. Instead, it was glowing rather warmly against her skin.
She turned to the ghosts. “It was lovely to meet you all, truly, but I should be getting back before my tour leaves without me,” she said. Dingle’s face seemed to fall: the others nodded reluctantly.
“Safest travels on yer way then, miss,” Donnelly said, sweeping her a smooth sort of bow. “Mighty good fer we lads to get the chance ter speak with a lovely witch such as yerself.”
“Very lucky indeed,” Harrington said drily, but he was wringing his hands together.
“Look, why don’t you consider coming back to the city with me?” she said, feeling instantly unsure about the words but plowing ahead regardless. “Perhaps you might find a way – erm, a sort of spirit transport to England – you could visit the old haunts – I mean, the sights. Find out what happened to all those people you once knew.”
Donnelly shook his head, smiling quietly. “Aye, tis a wondrous thought, but leaving a place such as Hill 60 is not so simple as that, miss. But we do appreciate yer sentiments, truly. Come on then, give-us a handshake, won’t ye?”
“Of course,” Victoire said warmly, and kept her expression from wincing as her hand was plunged three times through the sensation of being immersed in ice-cold water. She began to pick her way through the grass and back towards the thicket which hid the tour bus and the other visitors from view.
“Victoire?” Sam’s voice came from nowhere, and Victoire jumped, automatically checking to ensure her wand was safely tucked away inside her rucksack. Her jumper was a little grubby from where she had been sitting on the ground. “I wondered where you’d run off to - Arnaud and the others are ready to move on to Ypres.”
“Crikey, I’m sorry,” Victoire said, touching his arm lightly. “I was just admiring the crater lake. It’s quite peaceful here.”
Sam and Victoire both turned to look over the crater lake: the still water, the dancing trees, the warm wind. The ghosts of Lieutenant Donnelly and Privates Dingle and Harrington were waving up at her, broad grins materializing from their pearly faces, the light shining from their forms. Victoire smiled, though a part of her felt like it would linger in the grove on Hill 60 for quite some time, thinking of the young men who had died here so long ago, who were now reminiscent parasites on a changed world. Her heart felt cold and sad for them, for the dreams they would never realize, the homes they could never retrieve, the girls they would never kiss.
Her eyes wandered to fix themselves on Sam’s face: his dark hair flopping over his eyebrows, the slight hunch in his shoulders, the layer of freckles peeking from the pale skin, flushing a little. He stared out at the crater lake for a moment, and briefly she wondered if he could see glimmers of the ghosts against the water, or sense their lonely, static presence in the restless air. If the wind high in the trees was constantly flooding through, then the little scene by the crater lake was unchanging and eternally quiet.
Sam straightened. “Smells pretty weird here,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “Almost like something died.”
“Let’s get back to the bus, bloodhound,” Victoire said, looping her arm through his. She savored the warm, comforting pressure of his skin against her own. She wondered how it must feel, to never touch another human again.
Back in Brussels that night, Sam and Victoire limited themselves to one beer each. For their stay in Belgium, they had vowed to try as many Trappist beers as possible, and the ones they had selected that night – a very dark and bitter brew – was rather disgusting. Victoire giggled as she watched Sam try and choke it down. The poor boy had still not recovered from his rough night the evening prior, and Victoire wished that she had her potion-making kit with her so that she could have brewed some Pepper-up potion to slip into Sam’s morning coffee.
After the meal, they wandered through the cobblestoned square, which was bustling in the light from the grand buildings surrounding. Diners sat out in patios with bright umbrellas and expensive bottles of wine, and in the center of the square, younger people had set up little camps complete with assorted finger foods and open bottles of liquor which were handed around. Victoire smiled, thinking of their picnic with the Australians in Paris.
“I do like it here,” she told Sam. “Brussels, Belgium, I mean. It’s really beautiful, and I like how it’s so easy to communicate with most in French.”
“Easy for you, maybe,” Sam retorted. “I try and speak something and they laugh me off and just speak in English. It’s humiliating, really. I’ve been trying so hard!”
“You poor little Canadian,” Victoire said, nudging him. She enjoyed the way her skirt was swishing above her knees, how the light from the street lamps and the restaurants seemed to shine on Sam’s face. “Come on, I think it’s this way.” They were on a hunt to see the famous Manneken Pis, the statue of a little boy relieving himself in the form of a fountain. Somewhere, music was playing, and the smell of wine and stone drifted through the winding streets.
Victoire felt her eyes drawn to Sam tonight. With a swell of warmth and happiness, she thought of how wonderful he was: her travel companion, her good sport, her best friend for these fleeting few weeks. She thought of how he had agreed to change his plans to accompany her to Belgium, how he had come looking for her at Hill 60, how she wished he could have met the ghosts and spoken with them and thought of how precious were the twin gifts of life and youth, and how desperately she wanted to be close to him.
The next moment sort of unfolded itself. A bell jingled as an old man let himself into one of the late-night chocolate shops. A little girl laughed and pointed at the statue fountain. The moon peeked from behind a cloud and might have smiled to herself, had anyone been watching. In a lonely grove far away, two Germans and three Englishman were laughing together over a very pungent case of spirits. And in Brussels, the red-haired witch placed her hands on the dark-haired Canadian’s shoulders and pressed her lips against hers, and his hands trickled through her hair and she touched his cheek as they drew away, and grinned widely and carelessly, as if they couldn’t believe their luck.
Thanks for reading! Translations – thanks to google translator and I’m sorry for butchering these!
Attention! Plusieurs soldats se sont mourit ici: si vous entrez, sois attentif aux memoires de se qui sont perdus. Attention! Several soldiers died here, be aware of the memories of the lost ones.
Hallo, Mein Name ist Victoire Hello, my name is Victoire.
Sie sprechen Deutsch, huebsche junge Dame aus England? Do you speak German, young lady from Englandl?
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