The following short-story is based on excerpts from the novel "Les Dents de Scie," by Anne-Marie de Grazia, published by Editions du Seuil, Paris, in 1991. It is entirely rewritten and translated by the author.
Anne-Marie disliked the other girls' mothers, whom she saw appear in the gloom of hallways and behind flower pots, lifting the embroidered curtains of kitchen windows and casting upon her a reproving glance: most of the children in the village did not come to play with her, and she was not allowed inside their houses. The mother of Huguette would not let her come in, nor the mother of Aurore Ostertag, nor the mother of Zita Sparr. Aurore and Huguette and Zita would take her to their doors and then go inside and ask for permission for her to enter, and then, from the gloom of the hallway she would hear a voice saying: "No, don't let her come in!" or from a window, someone would shout: "Go home, now!"
Only the Wetterlé girls, who were poor, came to her house to play, and she went to theirs. There were four of them, all one year apart, in each consecutive class of the girls' school, Rosette Wetterlé was her age, Madeleine was younger by a year, Marguerite older, and Béatrice was the eldest. Then there was little Lolly: he had blonde ringlets which the girls would curl upon a smooth stick, he wore a green checked dress and could not keep clean for one minute. They came to the house and played with her toys from Switzerland, they admired the radio set and the record-player, they leafed through the Astronomy book without interest.
There was, in the center of the village, along Rue Nationale, an old half-timbered house which had been damaged by grenades and bombs during the war, and there the Gutleben lived. They were the Wetterlé's landlords. Mme Gutleben was obese and blonde; she came to the house to do the laundry for Anne-Marie's Gramamani once a month. Her husband drank wine. She said: "I piss in his wine but he keeps on drinking." One Sunday afternoon, when Grapapani took Anne-Marie to the café, they were told: "The Gutleben, he hanged himself." Of all events, suicides were the most important, the ones most talked about, and they occurred often. Men hanged themselves, like Judas. They hanged themselves on the eaves of the high lofts, or they shot themselves in their bedrooms with their hunting guns. Women threw themselves under the Basel-train, at night, near the crossing at the edge of the forest. Every night, at ten past eleven, the Basel-train whistled from the depth of the forest. The men said that Gutleben had hanged himself because he drank too much, that he had gone mad from drinking, but they all drank, and so did Grapapani, so Anne-Marie decided that Gutleben must have killed himself because his wife had pissed in his wine, and he had drunk it without knowing it, but nobody else except her would have known this.
In the back part of the Gutlebens' house, on a narrow street, the Wetterlés lived. Their Mama, Jeanne Wetterlé, was younger than Anne-Marie's Mama. She was not like the other mothers in the village who were shapeless and thick-legged. She ran through the streets when she was in a hurry, to the baker and the grocer and the butcher, or to church. She had long, wavy chestnut-brown hair and her ankles were, like Mama's, thin and lively. When she washed her hair, she would sit outside in the street and lift it up with her comb, to make the sun lighten it. She was gay and cheerful, people said that she and her husband had too much fun, that it was because she was so merry that they had gotten a child every year, that one day she would have a full dozen of them. God sent his angels to bring babies to cheerful, merry people, Anne-Marie told herself, and He was right, but people seemed to imply that it was in order to spoil their fun. Jeanne Wetterlé sang in the church choir and she played the accordion in the Catholic folk-band. When she went out with the folk-band, she would wear the Alsatian costume, with a large black silk bow sitting atop her head and a black apron embroidered with grapes and apples. The little Wetterlés' father was Mamà's age, he owned a motorcycle, he was tall and strong, with a red face, he was a plasterer, he was with the firemen, he played the big drum. One night, the father of the little Wetterlés hit a tree with his motorcycle and his skull remained stuck to the trunk. The three younger girls together with the little Lolly were sent to Mamà on the day of the funeral. They played in the yard while waiting for the funeral procession. They asked to listen to the radio. There were Viennese waltzes like every Sunday afternoon. They jumped rope. Mamà kept watch for the hearse. When she saw it coming up by the pond, and when the music of the firemen's band began to be heard, she combed the children again, she pulled up their white socks, she patted their black bows straight.
The next day, at school, Anne-Marie got scolded for having laughed in the schoolyard during recreation: this was a day of mourning for the Papà of the little Wetterlés, and it was forbidden to laugh. But the little Wetterlés had been with her all afternoon, during the funeral, and they laughed and danced around in a circle. What could other people know about the grief of the little Wetterlés?
Then the following spring, the Mamà of Rosette, Madeleine, Marguerite, Beatrice and Lolly was thrown out of the church choir, and of the folk-band as well. Everybody talked about nothing else, it was the most important event since Gutleben had hanged himself. Nothing had ever stirred up people's minds so much: it had been said at first that Father Nussbaum, who was called Monsieur le Curé, would have to throw her out, whether he wanted it or not, because a man with a motorcycle had come to live with her and with the children just a few months after the death of their Papa, and then the question arose whether, in case Monsieur le Curé threw her out, the folk-band was not bound to do the same?
Then, having been thrown out of the church choir by the priest and out of the folk-band, the Mamà of Rosette, Madeleine, Marguerite, Beatrice and Lolly died three weeks later, at the time of the pea harvest.
She was found lying in a small piece of land which she farmed on the hillside behind the village, amid the vineyards. It was on a Saturday afternoon, she was picking the peas for Sunday, someone had heard her cry and moan "help, help!" she was losing blood, her skirts were drenched with blood, the ambulance had brought her to the hospital in the city. Gramamani told the news when she came back from the grocer's, and Mama was all at once seized with an unexpected anger, and banged with her fist several times on the table, and cried out, but in a low voice, that idiot, that dumb cow, that poor sow, but it was not mean, it was an expression of pity. And then she said: "Dia dràk pfaffà, dia dràck pfaffà!" and this was Alsatian and these were awful words, which meant that she was very angry with the priests.
- Oh, if only she had talked to me, if she had said only a word, I would have helped her, I could have gone with her to Switzerland...
- What are you talking about, Gramamani said, you are completely crazy, what do you know about this anyway, keep your big mouth shut, so I should never, never hear you say another word about that, you must have lost your mind, and if she died and you were mixed up in this mess can you tell me, don't you have trouble enough...?
- She would not have died. It is nothing at all.
- You want me to tell you what I think, she only had to behave herself, that's all!
So Anne-Marie understood. She had been wrong to go and pick the peas. Mama in fact had said, herself:
- It took the devil to push her to go pick the peas, that madwoman... She found nothing better to do...
On Monday, at school, Rosette started crying all of a sudden and Sister tried to console her and told her that her mother would come back soon. She was sitting in front of Anne-Marie who could see, all morning, quiet sobs shake her narrow little back. When they went home, Anne-Marie put her arms around her and Rosette said:
- Mama is going to die.
- No, you'll see, she will come back in a few days.
- No, Rosette said, she is going to die.
She did not see Rosette again, nor any of the others, except at the funeral. The following day, the Sister had told the news at school, but everybody already knew. The knell had told. Father Hildebrandt, who was called Monsieur l'abbé, asked the children to pray for the soul of the poor deceased, who soon would enter Heaven. He spoke in a faint, muddled voice, not his everyday voice, of God, and of the mystery of His Will, and as he spoke, his thoughts seemed to be straying farther and farther away from what he was saying. School was suspended for the rest of the day.
When she came home, Anne-Marie kneeled on the floor, next to Mama's couch, and buried her face into the skirt of the red cretonne paisley cover. She prayed for the soul of the Mama of the little Wetterlés, but especially she cried, she cried so hard that she felt like her head would split asunder because, in the very midst of her prayer, she had suddenly figured out the plan of God. As never before, His Will had uncovered itself to her: when He had killed the father of the little Wetterlés, the death of their mother was on His mind already. The father's death was only the preparation for the worse, the truly destroying blow, Mama Wetterlé's death, for His plan had been all along to make orphans of the little Wetterlés. His plan was to bring the greatest possible misfortune upon the little Wetterlés, the greatest possible suffering, He wanted them to be as miserable and lost as they could possibly ever be. Otherwise, He could have made someone else's mother die, and someone else's father, but the Wetterlé children were five, that made five orphans in one fell swoop, and they were poor on top of that.
And the next one on the list, it was not difficult to guess, that was her: He would make her Mama die, because she had no father, because her Mama was her Mama and Papa all in one, because she, Anne-Marie, would now have more to lose than anybody, now that He had taken care of the little Wetterlés. Furthermore: Mama was ill already: she was losing her blood, too. Anne-Marie had seen her taking out of her panties pieces of cloth full of blood. Sometimes there were little spots of blood in her dresses. Anne Marie could make out periodically the bad smell of blood. Mama said that there was nothing to it, that it happened to all women, but she had never quite believed her, she had espied Gramamani through the door of the outhouse and she had never seen any blood. She understood all of a sudden that Mama had lied in order to reassure her and if Mama wanted to reassure her, it must have meant that she was very ill, ill enough to die. Anne-Marie wanted to hate God, but that is where He lay waiting for her, to test her: she must not open her soul to anger and to hatred towards Him: she must go on loving Him with all her might, and pray to him, and claim His great goodness, the smallest thought in any other way would be a blasphemy which would bring about His vengeance: hardly had she perceived the dastardly wickedness of His scheme than she hastened to tell God that she loved Him, that she loved Him, that she loved Him... she would pour out for Him all the love that was needed, and pray with fervor, so that he would not take her Mama away from her.
When Mama came home from the office, she was still glued against the couch. She refused to get up, she was praying so hard and telling God that she loved Him. Mama asked her:
- What would you do if I came to die?
- I would poison myself.
- Do you think that she is already on her way to heaven?
Zita Sparr was asking. Aurore and Blanche listened.
- For sure! One leaves as soon as one is dead, Anne-Marie said.
- One would like to go after her and get her. Do you think one could, tell me!
Aurore and Blanche were listening.
- I don't think so.
- I would like to. Even with an airplane, don't you think one could?
- No, it's impossible! One would have to die first.
She told them that it was the Sun that worried her most of all. She described the pictures in her Astronomy book: one could see flames around the Sun and, at the bottom of the picture, only to give an idea of sizes, the terrestrial globe, tiny, merely a blue dot, next to these flames called 'protuberances' which raised themselves very, very high, the whole Earth, if she ventured herself into heaven, could be swallowed up by one single lick of flame. Only a soul could get by there. Yes, if one had to pass by the Sun, it was hopeless, nobody ever would...
During catechism, she asked Monsieur l'abbé:
- And Heaven, is it farther then the Sun?
He said it was.
- First one would have to die, she explained to Aurore on walking home with her. And then, even in the shape of a soul, who knows if one would be able to bring her back, if one could ever come back oneself?
- Do you think she has gone through the flames already?
- Of course.
- How long does it take?
- Oh, I don't know, two, three days.
Distinctly they saw her, light-footed, her hair waving, in her pinafore, flying towards the flames.
- Jesus went there and back in three days.
But he was God, Anne-Marie knew, a perfect engine.
- It's easier not to die. If my Mama had known, she could have kept her from dying. She has the same illness. She would have taken her to Switzerland.
At the funeral, the church choir sang. The firemen's band and the folk-band marched together behind the coffin.
After the burial, the little Wetterlés were separated, and dispersed among family members, in different villages. Rosette and Madeleine went to live with one of their aunts, and the eldest and Lolly with somebody else, and Marguerite with someone else too. Anne-Marie did not see them again.
At night, there was the call: Jeanne! Jeanne! Jeanne! Jeanne! from the street, for the aunt of the little Wetterlés did not let him come into the house and the owner of the café refused to serve him a drink. To talk reason into him, they called Monsieur l'abbé who offered him a bed for the night at the presbytery. He was not from the village at all, he had come back a few months earlier from Indochina. He worked in the city, on a building site.People said that he was a good for nothing, a blouson noir, a hell's angel, a teddy-boy, that his parents had turned him out, that that was why he had come to live with Jeanne Wetterlé and with the children.
Then his parents had come to beg the priests to help them to make him come back again. He jumped at Monsieur l'abbé's throat. They threatened to call the gendarmes and he left on his motorcycle. No one had seen him at the funeral, but at night, he would climb the wall of the cemetery. He would leave his motorcycle against the wall of the cemetery, and climb on the seat, and jump over the wall. Mme Gutleben, who had remarried with the grave-digger, had seen him.