After a victory there are no enemies, only men.
—Napoleon Bonaparte, 1812
There is a pass in Russia where prostitutes lick their wounds, retreat into trees, and lie across the snow till the cold claims their bodies—such pure white drifts falling all around, chilling their marrow and dulling their hearts. This pass is not mapped, just the easiest route to suicide in a long war. In fact, it might be any patch of snow where the landscape hides a woman’s passing.
That’s what Sucette said, before she found it, and Margot believed her, so began to dream of this place, even while wakeful: A welcoming pillow of white under a copse of trees, yellow sunlight streaming through, and an almost painless, almost pleasurable death, like an orgasm that ejects the soul from the body for several moments before the skin calls it back.
She dreamt of scarecrows stripped and faded like the one she made with her brother in France—scarecrows that had lost their ability to scare after much of the original material had fallen from their branches. She had faded too, a woman to sticks, bones without padding, her bright eyes tarnished by unforgiving sights. After Kovno, Vilna, Vitebsk, and Smolensk, after Viasma, Gzatsk and Borodino—after Moscow lay burnt in the middle of the Russian winter, and the army’s retreat from the southwesterly route was deemed necessary. Everyone starved, and the army dwindled.
How many days, she wondered, rubbing her eyes, slapping her cheeks to rid them of their faint violet tinge, would she live in privation, servicing the needs of disenamored men? She had heard their confessions—yes, they missed their mothers, the taste of fresh-baked baguettes, and the scent of the countryside in spring; they longed for the sound of native French civilians, and the sight of peaceful farmers. They had seen death by war, by cold, and by hunger—so had she. But this death had stolen their hatred for the Russians who looked, in dying poses, like long-lost uncles or friends. They felt guilt and admiration as they marveled at Russia’s flaming destruction of her own cities, how she torched her museums and elaborate halls to keep the French from claiming them.
From each fight, fewer of Napoleon’s men returned, and though they had emerged victorious from Moscow, there was no plunder from the burnt city or thereafter. Two ruinous battles had been fought while the rag-tag boys, specked about the ears and lips with the homeland’s blue, lost faith in their leader and then spent themselves in whores.
Napoleon was decried an idiot, privately, as they mounted the vivandieres. Though in the camps, they seemed sturdy and nonplussed, their tricolors just a bit less jaunty on their heads, but the vivandieres—Margot, Elise, Sucette, Chantelle, (many more she did not know)—best knew the sorrows they worked free in the moist reaches of female bodies, the anger expunged into torn, bleeding cunts and left hanging, like meat from a dog’s neck.
They had asked after Moscow, “Why not remain until spring and avoid the march?” but Napoleon did not relent. He could not be out of touch with his empire for six, long months, so dictated this march through the bowels of the frozen tundra.
Despite their melancholy, or because of it, the soldiers plied the whores as if their bodies could be conquered where Russia could not. Margot had traveled with them for twenty-three months, servicing as many as forty soldiers a day, until she was kept by Fortinot. Now, she was ready to leave. She had lost three babies, loved three men, and seen Napoleon three times, walking through the camp like a sleepwalker with a lantern that splashed fiery reflections on the snow, though she had never touched his ivory cuffs or made an effort to converse. He was an odd man, deathly quiet or ebulliently charming. There was no in-between.
He was often heard outside, whispering to Josephine, breathing fervent prayers into the ice as if she might hear him all the way from France, but no one could speak to him when he did; the blind eye they turned was thorough. Men had been killed for less.
Napoleon cared only for his huge, white stallion and consulting his maps, but often stared at the ragged assembly of men with a squint expression as if to make them multiply. He was handsome, if short. Months earlier, Margot would have been happy to be protected by him, but he let no women into his tent and bedded no whores, so shed finally accepted Fortinot, and the arrangement had been fine for a while, but after Moscow, when victories were not victories, Fortinot lost his mind. His hands twitched, and his moods shifted, set off by anything, even a blink.
In response, she hid behind her eyes until absolutely sure of him. His reminded her of her father’s dementia, long ago, when he’d speak of the French Revolution, the rolling heads and political unrest, and like her father, Fortinot was often lost in violent reveries. Many days, her neck tight in his grasp, she felt her spine tingle as if it might crack as he shouted commands. Her bruises renewed without fading, becoming their own sapphire, and ruby jewelry without facets. He liked to see marks on her body.
His penis was a weasel’s head in a mountain of flesh, but he insisted she cry out as he loomed above her, so this was his favorite game: She was to pretend he was a wild, pleasing lover—or a fearful conqueror—and in return, he pretended she meant enough to feed. Meeting his needs was better than accepting the repeated plowing before him, but his skin disgusted her. Fat like a stuffed pheasant, doughy like bread, he would not be the first to starve in this cold; his breasts were larger than the spread length of her fingers, and beneath their sweaty folds, he itched unbathed sores. Her own breasts were so tiny they jutted out independently, with no place to gather moisture, so it was strange to find herself in a relationship where her body was that of a boy compared to her lover.
They had reached an encampment just outside Maloyaroslavets when Fortinot, stinking, unwilling to use heated snow, began to consult his old victory maps again and exclaim over them. Possibly, he had sampled the opiates circulating among the troops, but when he approached her, his eyes did not see a woman. He did not note the fine bones of the face hed once called elfin; he saw something else, something which made him furious.
She crouched away, trying to sleep, but he resembled a rutting boar above her, a red-faced instrument bent on disturbing her; he kicked her awake, his boot in her stomach, as she fought nausea. Then he gripped her throat and swung her side to side, shouting, “Whore, I burn because of you.”
His sunken eyes searched hers, and his cheeks bulged. When he tightened his hold, she thought: I will die here in this tent. Right here. Right now. I will lose my will.
“Didn’t I tell you wait?” he shouted. “I said no one else was to have you. Only me.”
“Yes,” she said. “But you had not brought food for days.” Starving, she’d left his tent the evening before. At a nearby spit, where two rabbits had roasted to feed twenty men alongside some weak soup in a half-full tureen, his men had stopped her, begging for favors. She planned on resisting them, citing Fortinots name and hoping only for some meat, but they held her down and took her again and again on a rough blanket. Twelve of them. She did not eat. “I was hungry,” she repeated into his glare, weak with a soaring fever. You hadnt been home. I didnt know what to do. The walls already started to heave in her vision.
“I would have brought food.”
He slapped her. “Whenever I wanted to. You’ll starve if you don’t eat from my hands. You understand?” He pulled a strip of meat from his pocket, encrusted with lint; he threw it at her. They killed my horse, he said, distracted for a moment. My mount is gone, but never the emperor’s. That horse is worth his weight in gold, so the emperor rides as we walk through snow. I’d like to break his bones and hear them crunch between my teeth. Eat the meat I gave you.
It did not shock her that horses had no safety from soup pots and brutality. She’d even seen them boil their shoes and belts to flavor meatless soup. Because this was not France; it was war, in a Russian winter. She ate, but wanted to vomit, so she stared at the tent flap as Fortinot wrenched up her chin with his greasy fingers. “Look at me when I speak to you,” he said. “Pay attention.” He glared as she chewed, but tossed her down when she finished, saying, “You belong to me. I’ll show you.” He pulled his dagger from his belt, slicing her face lightly, asking, “Remember what this says?” He trapped her under his thighs and dragged his knife more heavily across her cheek, seeming to relish his act, but put away the blade before she blacked out. He wanted her to see him toss her out in the snow.
When she awoke, he was gone, no sign of him in the tent, and the chill on her wound made her face burn. She pressed it closed. Disfigured, there was only one thing to do. The walk would require discipline; but she must try, must walk past thousands as if on an important errand, and must not fail. She craved her coat and thought of the sort of dying where fingers and extremities froze first, the horror of it, but nothing could change her resolve; Fortinot compelled her. Still, she would take some things first, things he would regret.
She opened the tent flap and ducked in, grabbing the fox fur of the jacket he gave her so long ago#&151;the coat discarded by a rich Russian dame, probably looted#&151;threw it on, then laced her dresses tighter. Because she had no gloves, she stole a pair from his table then stole his maps, the ones he most enjoyed looking at, and several matches. She would burn them in her last moments, one by one, for the sheer delight of watching the hand-drawn ink incinerate into char. Wrapping her head in wool so only her eyes showed, she stepped outside.
On her feet were a dead soldier’s boots she had also taken, which made her legs look shrunken but would keep her toes from freezing. Wrapped with scarves, her feet felt like mice in large boxes, but she’d already decided never to be barefoot, having once watched the French army snap the toes from Russian corpses like cracking carrots for stew; the memory did not leave her. She’d seen many frozen dead men, from both sides, throughout the campaign. With the terrible hunger, she had not been alone in wondering what could be wrong with doing something more with these bodies, but it was as though that were the last line the French were unwilling to cross, the only line, so they mangled and made jokes with them instead.
As she stepped out of the camp, the cold smell of ice made her ill, the stench freezing her nostrils. Talk of the weather bored her. A sour burn filled her stomach. If she were home she would cook a rabbit stew with every vegetable in her gardenbut she was not home. Her stomach growled weakly. Hunger, she thoughtnow, that could be discussed until the lips went blue, until the very thought of food was a haven, and the seas froze like icicles or burned like visions. It was a wonder the locals did not have layers of fur under their skin to protect them from the flurries. She wondered about the Russians, what they looked forward to in the midst of all this winter.
Twenty minutes later, she wanted to turn back, but instead considered Colleen, Anais, Olga, Colette—so many women found near the previous camps, remembered only briefly before the army moved on. When she was beyond the boundaries outlying ditches and artillery, her hands and face were numb, so she found a distant tree and sat beside it. This place would do. The trees bark soothed her, rough-hewn but strong, so she fell asleep dreaming of bayonets piercing Fortinots gut, or perhaps Napoleon’s Borodino pistols shooting him repeatedly, but she did not notice when she faded out in the snow, lapsing into a dreamless sleep, which, in this place, was a blessing.
She had reached the pass quickly, she thought in her last moment of awareness, with a minimum of effort. She wanted to stay there. When she finally opened her eyes, she thought to see a golden light, a void, or even a smothering pit of hell, but the walls of a wood cabin greeted her. A series of slaps woke her, and a young boy stared down with a worried frown. Hello, he said. Hello? Hello? He had wrapped her in rags. A small fire blazed in the cabins hearth. As he stoked the fire, alarm stole through her. “Who are you? Why is a fire burning? Put it out,” she shrieked. “They’ll see the smoke.”
“Not in the dark,” he said. “The smoke and the dark blend. I’m Dimitri. I found you in the snow.” He spoke Russian, which her dumbfounded face told him she did not understand, so he switched to a heavily accented French. “You are sick, so must stay here.” He had stitched shut her face, and it burned as she looked at him.
When sensation returned to her limbs, she rolled toward the wall, and closed her eyes, but he brought a plate an hour later, whispering, “I shot a rabbit. Seasoned with herbs. Try some.”
She shook, so could hardly eat. “C-cold,” she murmured, “on fire.” She blanked out again and when she next woke, spasms rocketed through her legs. She realized, as she sat up and the blanket fell away, that he had stripped her upper body and her breasts were exposed. He wore only pants, so they must have curled together, half-nude, for hours. She asked, “How long have I been here?”
“Almost a day.” His voice was calm. Thinking back, she vaguely recalled hands stroking her body, anonymous hands on her hips, on her breasts—and she saw the hunger in his eyes and scoffed. Youve been touching me while I slept!
Yes, he said.
Every move she made his eyes followed, but he was so young—a whelp in men’s britches—so she looked away. “Have the French moved out?” she asked.
“No. They caught several bears, so remained to cook them. They seem to be deciding where to go.”
“Are you alone?”
“Not since you came. Good thing I was hunting, but the dogs get the credit. They caught your scent and found you when you must have just passed out. My parents are dead. I picked you up because Ive missed the company.”
“You saved me for company?”
Why not? he said. “Aren’t there worse reasons?”
He cut up potatoes and fried them, but his hands took no more liberties. “I hope to wait out the winter and travel with the spring thaws,” he said. “How far is the camp, and are the maps you had correct?”
I dont know.
I wish they wouldnt take so long to leave,” he complained. “I took a risk to bring you here, but the snow fell as I came home and our tracks were covered by drifts. Lucky miracle. Saved by the snow. Isn't that funny?” He laughed, his Adams apple bobbing.
He talked about his parents, his childhood and the resistance efforts hed aided, and when it seemed he would never stop talking, he leaned his head into the curve of her shoulder, caressed her arms, and said, “The French will kill me if they find me. I don’t want to die a virgin. Will you help me?” She looked at his finely boned face, his eager, green eyes, fresh and sprightly, like the brother she’d left behind in France, like a half-ripe apple. He wore the fuzz of a first beard.
“I’m a whore,” she said. “Save yourself.”
“I don’t care.”
“I’m ten years older.”
“I think you’re very pretty,” he replied.
He waited so patiently then, she finally reached in his pants and resolved the issue, taking him as a boy ought to be taken, slowly and with care. Still, boy or not, he was a man through his lower parts, and he was right: If the French found him, they would kill him and steal his stores. He would not have a wedding. A whore would be better than nothing.
She moved with his thrusts, thinking: If the troops see this cabin, we’ll both be dead—so she made love to him as if he were someone she liked, maybe loved, someone dear to her in another life. She ran her hand down the length of his thin back.
Afterwards, he said, “Stay with me.”
“No. You’re just a boy,” she said. “You’ll find better opportunities.”
“I may not. Tell me your name—I won’t ask again.”
“Margot Plein. Im French,” she said, weary of his questions. Just a boy, went through her head, a sapling, a stem. She said, “Your countrymen will never accept me. Let’s get through this day, and see what we can do.”
“It doesnt bother me that youre French. He pulled her dress back over her head and laced the bodice. As he did, his tenderness was holy, as if he saw her as his discovery, his treasure unearthed, and his eyes were on fire. “I learned French,” he said. “So, you can learn Russian. We can say you were forced to submit by those dogs. After this war, no one will hold nationality against you.”
“Think on it,” he said. “But either way, you’ll need several nights to get well enough to travel. Youll be with me for a while” She fingered her cheek, feeling his tight, even stitches. “Your injury is healing better than I thought,” he went on. “It’s not nearly as badly as it might have been—well, the scar will be small.”
“I got this at the camp,” she said, picturing Fortinots belly as a vast white hill of lard on the landscape, his bellybutton a bullet hole from a gun that had accidentally discharged, “and so I left.” She said nothing more, and that night, he clung to her, but she dreamt of swinging by her neck in a meaty fist, and found herself clinging to the boy, trembling, but not from cold. How nice it was to tremble without shivering. Had it been so long? She could not remember when she had done this. In this place, a moment could be an hour, an hour could be a year.
As morning approached, she touched the fine hair on the boys arms and at the center of his chest. He coughed, and she realized he was awake, watching her.
His eyes looked bruised. They made love again in the silence. At dawn, the dogs barked, and Dimitri called them, tying their snouts with hemp. Almost as soon as he’d yanked them into the cabin, the noise of creaking wagon wheels neared. “They’re coming,” she said.
Dousing the fire, he crammed her into the pantry, dragging the dogs with them. He shut the door as the dogs whimpered and turned toward them in the small space, patting their heads as if to show he meant no harm, whispering, “Shhh,” and saying, with a gentle voice, “my father would not let you die, and neither will I.”
Margot could not explain the tenderness she felt watching him with those beasts, but alarm instantly replaced her musings. The army sounded closer by the moment, and the grunts of laboring men cleaved the air as she shivered in the cabinet so far from the heat of the hearth. She thought of her mother, shivering as she’d nursed her young sister, on the day Margot had left to join the army as a whore. At least the pantry quarters were so close that the warmth of his body soon made it bearable, and the dogs were quiet at last, happy to be near the boy. “Thank you,” Dimitri whispered to them as the tromp of boots continued, then said to her, thank you for being here, even this short while.”
Her legs felt encircled by fur. Her hands felt warm, encircled by his. Tied snouts pointed upwards, the dogs begged for pats, wet noses glancing her wrists. For a moment, she did not want to leave the dark, warm womb of the cabinet. Not ever.
“Should we go out now?” he asked when the noise of troops abated.
“Another few minutes.”
He hugged her tighter, and the dogs whimpered. She thought briefly of staying here, of making a family with him, of being cherished and creating a life for herself, but she longed for France so deeply her breath clotted in her throat, and she wished his French were less guttural. She wished he were not a boy, or that she had never made this trip. She, the eldest of three; she could have earned food in other ways.
When he stepped out, she dressed herself fully, saying, “I’ll check that theyre gone. You stay and hide.”
“And if they arent?”
“I’ll tell them I got lost.” She laced her boots.
“Will you reveal me?” His face lost all control, twitching as his shoulders slumped.
No, I never would. She touched his skin, his soft beard, the dark half-moons beneath his eyes, and gave him a long kiss, then gathered her coat and braced herself. Smaller gloves, a gift, a pair of his mothers, warmed her fingers. “No,” she said. “There is no way I would tell them about you.”
He wore the gloves she’d stolen from Fortinot. “But you will be back?”
“No, she said. This is goodbye.”
He hovered in the doorway and finally said, “Ill go with you. Well take the sled and the dogs. Ill gather provisions, then help you travel to France, or, better yet, you could stay until spring, and well make the trip with less danger. That would be more prudent.”
Watching the snow, a gentle drift that had not yet covered the tracks of the army, she knew he was right. If alone, she might again find herself blanketed by a storm, and she suddenly knew that she wanted to find her way home, at all costs, so said, “Don’t expect me to love you.”
“Fine,” he said, hitching the dogs, and they followed the tracks in reverse, stopping at rattles in the trees and progressing through the woods.
He gaped when they reached the encampment. The French had left several dying soldiers in the snow, arranged by the fires. He said, “They don’t even bury them; how grotesque,” whistling under his breath and poking a carcass with his walking stick. She noticed, for the first time, a limp in his left leg. It was so slight it did not surprise her she had missed it.
“They have no energy to do so,” she replied.
He went to scavenge weapons from the dying, noting the left artillery with awe. She walked deeper in until hed fallen away, and she went a good mile before she commented, to no one, “There, was Napoleon’s tent. There was the patch of snow he spoke to. There—” she started but did not finish, was the place of the animal who cut me.
At first, she thought Fortinots body was a hallucination of her willing mind—but as she neared his tent, he laid there, sprawled in the snow, light snow covering his body, blood staining his chemise. His blue coat hung open, flecked with ice, an old map was lodged deep in his pocket. He had been stabbed. Blood no longer spilled from his wounds, but she wondered who had taken his life at the same time as deciding she didnt really care; even anonymous death was fitting.
She ran toward him for a closer view, snow flying on either side of her boots and crunching beneath her feet, hurrying as if to greet a long-lost friend, but met him instead with a sharp kick in the side. At the sound of his own rib cracking, Fortinots brown eyes popped open. Margot, he said, almost smiling.
She stood over his chest. Yes, its me, you maggot. Looking closer, she noted the stabs were glancing, but his hands had been tied above his head. Someone had wanted to torture him. He blinked as she stepped back. Through blue lips, quaking features, and almost frozen limbs, he tried to speak. Frost hung from his lashes. The embers of a fire pit glowed beside him.
“Fortinot,” she said in rapid French. “They seem to have done you in.” She could not be sure, but his lips seemed to tighten. His eyes rolled back. “You have your map, your dagger, old friend,” she said, but they took your medals and your musket. That must plague you.”
She felt pleasure to say this, but when he glared at her again, she whipped his dagger from his belt, saying, “They forgot this, though. How foolish.” She held the dagger inches above his head to be sure he saw it. Her breath frosted the air, and she waved the dagger in her gloved hands back and forth asking, “Did I crack the Grand Marshal’s rib with my foot? What a pity.”
His side lurched, but he could not lift his arms. “Your blood is cold,” she said. “No one will save you. Soon, your body will be frozen as that horse, but not now. Now, you live.” Someone wanted a slow end for you. She wanted to stab him repeatedly, pummeling his body from spite, but handled his dagger to distract herself, tossing it from hand to hand, and rereading the inscription she’d heard so many times: To Have Is to Conquer.
I own you, he’d said.
How she hated him. His eyes ceased to focus on her lips and settled on her cheek. A ghost of a mean smile played on his features. “Dont look at my face! I could cut you from groin to throat,” she said. “And am happy to do so.”
“Margot,” Dimitri said, stepping up beside her, “we should go. What if they double back?”
“It’s too cold to stay, and a storm is coming. The tracks might disappear.”
“I won’t leave,” she said, unwilling to look away from Fortinot, “until he’s dead.”
Dimitri stared at her and said, “I’ll check on the dogs,” but she wondered if she appeared a witch to him then since she was so incensed. a malevolent ghost hovering over a dying man. She mused on Dimitri until Fortinot drew her back to him with a groan and spoke, though his words were muddled.
“Quoi?” she asked. “Encore un fois, Marshal.”
“Bitch,” Fortinot said, forcing the words out. “Scarred bitch.”
She took his dagger and sliced his chin, shouting hysterically, “Who killed you this way? Was it Napoleon?” She continued to cut at his cheeks. “Was he bent on destroying the Marshal who’d served him so long but never succeeded to please him? Did he want to destroy the insane Marshal who let his rage fall only on women, who he never wrote into his books? Youre no Marat.” She spit in his blood then, and fueled by the glimmer she’d caused, went on. “He saw something brilliant in you, yes, but discovered he was wrong; youre better off dead in the snow, and he knew it—left to die without honor, a sad end to your illustrious career.”
She slapped him to keep him focused, but he said nothing as she watched his blood congeal, so she crouched on the snow beside him until his eyes focused on something beyond her head. She did not shut them even after he died though his lashes were thick with snow. They could stare at a heaven where he would not go.
She pulled off her gloves and touched his blood with her fingers, smearing it in circles, but did not cease to check his glance in case it altered. When Dimitri came to collect her, she was lost in a reverie of warm French fields, and had begun to dip her hands in the snowdrift like soil, her mind entrenched in the Marshal’s brown merciless eyes. Dimitri stopped her and lured her from the body. It took him some time to draw her away, but she did not cry. She laughed, a high hysterical laugh and sang, Na-pol-eon, avec cinq cent soldats, Nap-ol-eon, avec cinq cent soldats...
Dimitri called the dogs. In her periphery, she watched them pant and run. When she looked at her hands, her fingerprints held rusty maps. Sepia had dried into their crevices as if her way home was written in elegant, circular transcripts, smelling of salt and blood. “So, I return, Father,” she said. “I’ll be there soon.”
Dimitri put her fingers in the dogs’ warm fur and held them close to the canines, rubbing and prodding until they burned, then put her gloves back on and placed her in the sled. “In the spring,” he said. “You’ll see a different side of Russia. You’ll like it then.”
She did not reply. She thought of the army returning home, but was lost in the memory of Marseille, Paris, Lyons, a long-ago place where the sun warmed her face and her mother churned butter in a cabin as they spoke of fleur-de-lis—where her father came home after toppling a forest, smelling of sap and wind.
The same type of cabin soon loomed before her, looking almost familiar, except it was covered with pale, white dust in a country that was not her home, and the dust kept falling, increasing in force and density, blown into unending chaos while a boy who looked like Jean carried her inside. The boy whispered, “I love you. Come in,” and she followed, stumbling into gentler times as if desperate to find them in his arms, as if desperate to be somewhere other than the breast of the growing storm, and like a girl again, precious, without qualms.
Originally written as an homage of sorts to the novel The Passion and to J. Winterson herselfthe author who taught me I could pick up historical
characters, make them quirky, and make them speak. With this story, I
wanted to humanize the female character, though (in a way I don't find
Winterson's characters humanized)make her accessible, nonandrogenous, and
real. I wanted to play with the idea of the idealized past becoming a refuge in the precarious present. As is a constant theme in my work, here
I explore again memorys relationship to everyday existence, perception, and choice.