by Elen Essem
The year is 1941. A bitter man adopts a quiet, isolated child. Their lives change forever.
"Il s'appelle Maud Amundsen," announced Armelle. "His name is Maud Amundsen." My boss threw the papers down on my desk. "Enjoy."
I scowled at her. "What makes you think I have any interest in this Maud kid? What kind of name is that, anyway?"
Armelle crossed her arms. She really was a pushy woman and now, with her curly red hair cut shorter so it framed her cheekbones, she looked even pushier. "This is up to you, Monsieur Valdon. Surely it can't be that hard of a task."
Wait a second. "You mean--I'm leading this?"
"Of course, be. We couldn't put Benoit or Elodie in charge. Neither one of them are qualified enough. Handling children, I mean."
I tapped my cigar on an ashtray. "Children? My, Armelle, surely I can't be qualified to handle children?"
"Mmm..." My boss smoothed her tweed skirt. "You could've been a father."
Of course she would know. One, she was my boss. Two, she had access to my files. I was sorely tempted to turn away the offer to go on this expedition, but something nagged at me. I had to do it.
"Oui. I'm in."
Armelle looked me square in the face. "I knew you were, Monsieur Valdon." She left the room.
I closed my eyes, then reached down and, in one quick motion, slid open my desk's drawer. Resting atop a pile of papers was a glass picture frame. Miniscule pearls and faux flowers entwined silver vines on the frame. And the photo, the photo--
My eyes had barely scanned the beautiful woman's face before my heartstrings began to quiver. Swallowing a knot in my throat, I shoved the frame back and slammed the drawer closed.
Someone knocked on the door. "Come in!" I called, my voice thick. I coughed and cleared my throat as a man, balding and in his early forties, entered my office. He was a stout man, and had a round, cheery face. His cheeks and nose were rosy, reminding me a bit of a younger Santa Claus.
"H Benoit!" I exclaimed, rising. "Good friend, how are you?"
Benoit laughed at my enthusiasm. "I'm well." We exchanged une bise, then he settled in the chair across from mine. "Have you heard from Elodie?"
"Non, my friend. Remember, she envies me because I'm supposed to take care of this kid," I answered. The very thought of fostering a child made me cringe.
Benoit chuckled. "Armelle did say you'd make a great father."
I folded my arms, glowering. "Were you eavesdropping?"
"Of course not! Armelle's always going on about how you could've been a father, patati, patati, patata. Makes me sick."
I felt myself redden. "Please, don't you have any respect for her?"
"Bien s. She's my boss." Benoit reached down and took a peppermint from the glass bowl on my desk. He unwrapped it and, at the same time, popped the mint in his mouth and threw the wrapper at my face.
"Hey!" I caught the wrapper out of the air. "This is my office, Benoit. Specifically moi. I'm not eight and you seventeen. We're not young anymore, and we can't afford to act young. It might cost us our jobs," I grumbled.
"What happened to my little friend?" Benoit asked, grinning as he took another peppermint.
"You're just like a child!" I scolded, snatching it from him. "You're the little one!"
"Oh?" he said, swiping it back. "But not as little as the petit you're about to take in, non?"
I was ready to lob the entire bowl of peppermints at him, but surely that wouldn't be appropriate. Not in an office setting. I took one long drag on my cigar, inhaling its fumes while I, myself, silently fumed. Once I had this Maud child, I'd have two children to take care of. Him and Benoit.
I looked at Benoit. He winked at me. "It can't be too bad, eh? Antarctica? There may be some pretty women." When I frowned and didn't respond, he added, "A pretty fille might lighten your mind. In fact, compared to Cine--"
"She has nothing to do with this!" I snarled, lunging forward and grabbing his collar. "So shove it, Benoit!"
"Just saying!" my friend said, holding up his hands in an innocent gesture. Innocent. The thought made me snort. I released him and slowly sank back in my chair, letting the familiar leather caress me.
"Zut, must you defend that woman?" Benoit groaned, massaging his throat even though I'd never touched it. He saw my response of stony silence and threw up his hands. "I'm out of here," he muttered. "Mon Dieu, you're touchy." He left without another word.
Why am I so very hard on friends? I chewed on the end of my cigar, agitated. Smoke drifted about my head, and I felt crazed. Was I going mad? The whole world was going mad, that was for certain. First Germany attacked Poland, and now Europe was at war with herself.
All because of that German dictator, I mused, getting his people all excited over nothing. I sighed, pondering.
Eventually, with only the ticking of the clock to disturb me, I slid open the drawer again. The woman in the picture had long, dark hair that tumbled over her narrow shoulders. Large brown eyes smiled back at me.
The door banged open. I nearly dropped the picture frame. I hastily shoved it back into the drawer and closed it just as a woman approached my desk. She was younger than Benoit but older than me. Her hair was a natural, eccentric orange, styled in wild curls. Large-framed glasses made light glint over her blue eyes. I have to admit, the woman was not the prettiest fleur.
"Monsieur, I just learned that you are getting Maud! What is this nonsense? I will not have it!" Elodie's fist slammed down on my desk. I jumped.
"Calm yourself, Elodie!" I cried, enraged. "When did you learn this?"
"Maintenant juste. From Benoit," she said, breathing hard through her nostrils. She drew up a cigarette and blew a smoke ring in my direction. I waved the cloud away.
"I didn't choose it, Elodie. Armelle did."
"Ah! That woman!" Elodie shrieked, jabbing an accusing finger at me. "You told her, didn't you! You told her--!"
"That I didn't want to take care of a child who doesn't speak French, let alone any human language?" I shouted back. "You have no reason, Elodie! If it were up to me, you could have him!"
"Oh?" she huffed. "I speak French better than you, you pathetic excuse of un homme. Look at you, and look well. You speak informally to your own boss! Can't you see? Armelle likes you. She adores you. So, in turn, she replies in informal!"
"Hey!" I stood at that, my hands clenched into fists at my sides. "Listen, Elodie, you know nothing about relationships! I bet you haven't had a date in your life!"
"True enough," she replied. Blunt, but honest. That's Elodie. "But I can read body language. Armelle thinks you're cute, you're smart, you live in an apartment all by yourself and all you want to do is join the French fighting force."
"That's not true!" I protested, bristling from the sting. "What makes you think--?"
"Tr vrais," Elodie interrupted. "But the point is, you need a girl in your life. You had one once, but she's gone."
The color drained from my face. "Surely, Elodie..." But I was suddenly too weak to continue. My limbs shook. My breath caught in my chest; I was promptly victim to my own body. It could shut itself down at any moment and I'd be merciless.
"Surely nothing. Stop hoping that she'll come back, because she won't." The sunlight reflected off her orange hair, turning it the shade of carrots.
"I don't want your help," I said stiffly.
In reply, she marched over to my desk and, before I could stop her, yanked open the drawer. She stared at the picture before whirling on me. "You still keep her picture here, in this drawer? Where is the sense in that? Where?"
"Hey!" Furious, I could do nothing but sink slowly back into my chair. "Have you been checking my desk?"
"Bien s. After...it happened, I knew you'd be suffering. So I was just doing a follow-up. I care about you too, you know. I know you think the world stopped, but it hasn't. It just keeps on turning. You know," she said, pausing and looking at my wan face, "my maman used to sing me a song."
"Oh, brother," I said, not quite in the mood to hear a song. Especially not from Elodie.
She sang, in a sweet, trilling voice that captured me:
When all is said and done
The world still turns
And life goes on and on
Between the poles of the earth
I see the stars in your eyes--
"Whoa, hold it! I don't want you getting all mushy on me," I said, holding up a hand. "Say, you don't like me--do you?"
The song died in her throat. "Oh!" she said, embarrassed. "Et non," she said, straightening, "I have my eyes on someone else."
"Lucky them," I grumbled.
"Cheer up. It's not so bad. Just remember that song," she said.
"Sure, sure." I tried to rid my head of her rich, steamy voice that rang with passion, but I couldn't do it. I looked up and found her watching me. Long, orange eyelashes framed her eyes. She studied me, and I watched those lashes as she blinked.
"Oh, Igon," she said, sadly, "You still love her, don't you?"
"Of course," I said, almost defensively. "You don't understand, Elodie. I made her a promise, but then I broke it. I broke her heart," I said, biting my lip. "I broke it in two, Elodie. Ripped it in two, with my own bare hands. Felt her blood spill on my skin, and she felt my betrayal. I no longer trusted her. Our love was bound by trust because of her past, but--" I choked on a lump forming in my throat.
"Igon," Elodie said, reaching for me.
I drew away. "I will always love her. She's my wife, after all."
I saw her eyes dart to my wedding band. She stood, slowly. There was pain on her face. But somehow I knew she didn't like me romantically. She was grieved by the pain I felt. She walked to the door, paused, turned to me.
"Igon..." Her eyes were moist. "Just remember." Then she was gone.
Numb, I sat there, staring at the wood of my desk. Remember what? I thought somewhat bitterly.
Queen Maud's Land, Antarctica
Maud Amundsen lived in an abandoned scientist's camp, and he had lived there for all eight years of his life. Once a month, a stranger would come visit him. He was tall and strong and had white-blond hair. His eyes were the color of the sea that stretched endlessly beyond the frozen tundra.
The stranger would come and go. He never spoke. He just checked on Maud and made sure Maud had enough food and water. He'd also check on the shelter itself, for any leaks or cracks. And, after fixing any, he'd leave.
That was okay with Maud. He'd always lived alone.
Maud knew what he looked like. He'd seen his reflection in the ice many times. He had white-blond hair like the stranger's, but it was down to his waist and unkempt. His eyes were also the same color as the stranger's. Maud wore thick furs and skins, stuff he either obtained himself or received from the stranger. The stranger, however, wore strange clothes, made of material similar from Maud's sleeping bags.
One time during the man's visit, Maud had watched him, secretly wanting to ask him if they were related. But Maud couldn't speak. He didn't know how. In fact, since he'd never heard another human being speak, he didn't know how to verbally communicate. This fact alienated him from this other human being who came to visit him. The stranger was kind, though, and smiled at Maud when he caught him looking.
Then he'd pat him on the head and go out onto the ice. He'd leave by a metal box with a long, thin tail. It'd rise into the sky with a whirring sound and fly away.
Sometimes storms blew through the vast, icy tundra. Maud would huddle in the shelter in layered sleeping bags, afraid for his life. He didn't understand why the snow swirled around and bit at his skin if he happened to be out.
He did like to go out, though. He'd go out on the ice and poke a stick through it, then wait until he got a fish. Then he could enjoy a nice meal, which he cooked on a spit right there on the ice.
He saw a lot of wildlife. Seals sunned themselves on the ice. Orcas surfaced nearby in the water. Penguins waddled through the snow. He'd seen polar bears too, nursing their young. Always, he wondered why these creatures traveled in groups.
He wished he had the stranger as a constant companion. Even though he didn't mind being alone, he didn't fully like it. Sometimes, he would sit on the ice and gaze out across the ocean. He wondered if there were others like him and, if ever, he would meet them.
It was colder than usual sometimes, warmer than usual at other times. Now, it was colder. Maud also knew something was wrong with him. He struggled to breathe, and his chest ached. Occasionally, he'd cough up mucus from his lungs. However, this had happened to him before. He just had to hope that the stranger would come.
And finally, when Maud could not leave his cocoon of sleeping bags, the stranger came. Maud knew, too, because he could hear the metal machine that flew. The stranger knocked, paused, and, hearing no reply, entered.
"Maud Amundsen." It was a greeting, a warm welcome. That was the only thing the stranger ever said, in a gruff yet friendly tone. Since he always addressed Maud by these words, Maud assumed that he was called that.
But Maud could not silently watch him in the shadows this time. Captive to the sleeping bags, he followed the stranger with his eyes. The stranger came to his side, carrying a large bag. Using large hands, he reached into the bag and withdrew holding mysterious, plastic bottles. They rattled in his hand.
Next, the stranger took out a water bottle from his coat. The water was not frozen from the cold, but liquid because of its being close to his body. He popped out some small, white things from the plastic bottles, then held them close to Maud's mouth. He mimed putting them in his mouth, swallowing, then taking a sip of water. That was how he and Maud communicated: miming.
Maud obediently put the white things in his mouth. He felt them melt on his tongue, leaving a sour, fetid taste. Quickly, he downed the water to wash out the taste. The stranger stayed by his side as he closed his eyes and drifted to sleep.
When Maud awoke, the stranger took his wrist and pressed two fingers to the base of his thumb. Maud felt a throbbing from beneath his own skin, and then the stranger removed his fingers. He smoothed back Maud's hair, which was damp with sweat, and planted a kiss on his brow.
Maud's chest hurt. He touched his chest, trying to tell the man. The man's blond eyebrows descended; he gently felt around Maud's ribs. The man looked to Maud, who shook his head. Maud knew the difference--nodding your head meant it was right, shaking it meant no.
When the man pressed under a rib, Maud jerked and gasped. He vigorously nodded his head.
Solemnly, the man withdrew and wrote something on a clipboard. He did that occasionally. Maud couldn't make sense of the scribbles the pen made. They crawled across the page and stayed still all at once. How was that possible?
Then the man smiled and, after patting him on the head, left by his metal box.
Michel Lafayette's red hair distracted me. The color was so vivid it seemed fake, and I was unpleasantly reminded of Elodie. Michel spoke in halting French. I supposed he was Irish because of his red hair, but his accent sounded more central to eastern European.
"Your name's Lafayette?" I asked interestedly. "Did you know he's one of the Frenchmen who helped America win the Revolutionary War?"
Michel gestured helplessly.
"Surely you must know? Perhaps you are related to him," I suggested.
"Ah, then, yes?" It came out more like a question.
I suppressed a sigh. "You tell me you have information on this boy? What?"
"He is ill, monsieur, and needs hospital, and can speak no human language."
I flicked some ash off the end of my cigar. "He's ill?" That caught my interest. Now, not only did I have to take in a strange kid, but a strange sick kid. I mentally calculated the cost of a medical bill.
"Monsieur, are you coming? On the expedition, I mean. Are you coming with us to get Maud?"
Michel hesitated. Then he finally said, slowly, "Non. I don't think so." Suddenly he seemed uncomfortable. "You must promise to go easy on him. Maud cannot speak. I am told he mimes to get the point across, but you see--"
"I do," I interrupted. "Now," I added, "you may be excused."
After the young man had left, I reclined in the chair. Brooding, I chewed on my cigar.
Armelle sauntered in soon afterwards, her red hair ablaze. "Igon."
"Oui? Mademoiselle." I silently cursed her.
When Armelle spoke, she sounded cross. "You and your team are to arrive in the Queen Maud territory, scheduled the first of November." Wearily, she examined me. "And you'd better clean up. The kid doesn't want to see a beggar as his first glimpse at the outside world."
The last thing I heard before Antarctica.
"You sure you can fly this thing?" I called over the plane's engine.
"Sure I can, bete. I don't suppose you could take over?" Benoit glanced over his shoulder, away from the snowy-white terrain. "Non? Then I'll just keep doing my job, and you take care of yours."
I scowled. The best help I'd been in the last few hours was sitting, huddled, beneath a blanket. Some help.
Elodie rolled her eyes.
To avoid looking at her, I glanced down at the clipboard in my lap. Some trip this was turning out to be. Flying over the continent of Africa and the Atlantic had been stressful enough, what with Benoit's flying skills. He especially enjoyed turning the plane, making loops in the sky and vomit in my stomach.
Several sheets were clipped to the clipboard, and I scanned through the scrawled writing.
.Name of 'Maud' Amundsen
.Speaks no French, no English, German, Japanese or any other language known to man
.Communicates by miming; knows that shaking of head means 'no' and nodding of head means 'yes,' thus perhaps he has been exposed to western language and custom
.Has a chronic cough and supposed chest pain, maybe pneumonia
.Needs hospital straightaway
As I read Michel's notes, I was strangely reminded of his red hair. I wondered how the shy, young man had gathered these observations, since he hadn't indicated that he, personally, had visited Maud.