Paris was starving and on her knees. Rats were fleeing the sewers as sparrows were disappearing from the rooftops. People were eating whatever they could find.
Morissot was a watch-maker and lay-about. One clear January morning, he was walking along the avenue. His stomach was empty and his hands were in the pockets of his National Guard uniform. He suddenly stopped when he recognized his old friend, Sauvage.
Morissot used to go to Marante Island every Sunday before the war. He would leave at dawn, carrying his cane and lunchbox. To get to the island, Morissot took the Argenteuil line to Colombes and walked the rest of the way. He would start to fish the moment he arrived at that dreamlike place and he would not stop until nightfall.
Sauvage was also there every Sunday. He was a plump and jolly little man who worked as a haberdasher and who lived on Notre-Dame-de-Lorette street. Together, the two men could easily pass half a day together, holding their lines and letting their feet dangle above the water. Morissot and Sauvage were very fond of each other.
The two men could spend many days in silence. They spoke from time to time, but there was not much need for conversation, since they knew each other so well. At 10 o’clock each morning, a ray of sunlight would cast a slight mist over the water, which would bathe the two fishermen in the warmth of spring. At this point, Morissot would turn to his neighbour and say Well, isn’t this nice?
Sauvage would reply: I know of nothing better. And these words were sufficient for both men to understand to appreciate one another.
In autumn, the setting sun would turn the sky a blood-read and throw reflections from the clouds onto the water. Morissot and Sauvage would be lit up as both the river and horizon shone crimson. The trees changed from brown to gold as winter approached. Sauvage would turn, smiling, to his companion and say: What a spectacle!
Morissot’s eyes would never leave his float as he replied: It sure beats the avenue, eh!
Morissot and Sauvage recognized each other and shook hands with enthusiasm. They were overwhelmed at finding themselves in very different times. Sauvage sighed and grumbled: One thing after the other.
Morissot replied: We live in troubled times. Today is the first fine day of the year.
Indeed, the whole sky was blue and full of light. The two men started to walk side-by-side, lost in their memories. It was Morissot who broke the silence: What about fishing? Good memories, eh!
Sauvage asked: When shall we go again? At this point they had entered a small café and were drinking absinthe. Once they had finished, they went outside and Morissot stopped suddenly:
How about a second?
As you wish. They entered another café and emerged a while later, dazed with their empty stomachs full of alcohol. A pleasant breeze tickled their faces.
The warm air prompted Sauvage to say: How about going there now?
To our island, of course. The French outpost is near Colombes. I know the colonel Dumoulin; he’ll let us by for sure.
Morissot shook with delight: Say no more. I’m with you. They left to gather their fishing equipment. One hour later, they were heading to the colonel’s villa, along the Grand Route. The colonel smiled and indulged them their request. Then, the two men returned to the road, armed with the password.
Before long, Morissot and Sauvage had crossed both the outpost and the abandoned Colombes and stood on the edge of a vineyard, which stretched as far as the Seine. It was about one o’clock.
Facing them was the village of Argenteuil, which looked dead. The peaks of Orgemont and Sannois dominated the countryside and the large plain that ran up to Nanterre was empty. There was nothing there except bare cherry trees and grey earth.
Sauvage pointed to the summits and said: The Prussians are over there. There in front of this desert-like landscape, the two men stood transfixed with worry.
Morissot and Sauvage had felt the presence of the Prussians around Paris for months, although neither man had seen any soldiers. The Prussians were invisible and yet all-powerful. They had ruined France by pillaging, killing and starving the population. They had been victorious in the war, and yet remained unknown. Morissot and Sauvage both hated and feared the Prussians.
Morissot stammered: Hang on, what if we come across any?
In spite of everything, Sauvage replied with typical Parisian irony: Then we’ll serve them up some fish! They were, however, reluctant to venture out into the countryside, afraid of the silence that stretched from one end of the horizon to the other.
In the end, Sauvage decided for them both: Let’s go, but carefully now. They entered the vineyard bent double, using the bushes for shelter. Both men kept watching and listening.
A stretch of bare land was now all that separated them from the water’s edge and they began to run. No sooner had they reached the riverbank, they nestled down amongst the dry reeds. Morissot pressed his cheek to the ground to listen out for anybody who happened to be walking nearby. He heard nothing; they were truly all alone. Reassured, the two men sat down to fish.
Over the water, the abandoned Marante Island concealed them from the other riverbank. There was a small restaurant, which looked as if it had been abandoned years ago.
Sauvage claimed the first catch and Morissot claimed the second. From time to time they would raise their lines and see a silvery fish wriggling on the end of it. They placed the fish in finely meshed nets, which they left to dry at their feet. A wave of contentment washed over Morissot and Sauvage. They had not felt this pleasure in a long time. All the while, they basked in the sunshine and thought of nothing but fishing.
A dull sound suddenly shook the ground, as if resounding from within the Earth. Cannons had begun to fire again. Morissot turned his head to the left and there, above the bridge, was the large outline of Mont Valerian. Steam billowed from the top, which made the front look like a white crest.
A second puff of smoke left the mountain, followed several moments later by a detonation. Others followed and, every so often, the mountain breathed death and poured out white smoke. The smoke rose slowly in the calm sky, forming clouds above the hilltop.
Sauvage shrugged: It looks like they’ve started again. Morissot, whose anxious eyes were fixed on his float, felt a sudden surge of anger towards the madmen who fought like this.
How stupid it all is to kill each other like that!
They’re worse than animals.
Morissot (who had just caught a bleak) declared: And to think: it will always be like this so long as there is government.
The Republic would not have declared war.
With kings one fights a war on the outside; with republic, one fights a war on the inside.
Morissot and Sauvage went on to discuss the main political issues of the day. The only thing the two men agreed on was that they would never be free. All the while, Mont-Valerian was thundering: cannon fire was destroying French homes and crushing lives. It was wiping out life and ending dreams, joy and any hope of happiness.
In France, just as elsewhere, hearts of women, girls and mothers were being exposed to suffering that would never end.
Such is life declared Mr Sauvage.
Or rather, such is death replied Morissot with a bitter laugh.
At that moment, they became aware of somebody walking behind them. Turning around, they saw four large, armed and bearded men. They wore flat caps and were dressed as servants. Their rifles were trained on Morissot and Sauvage.
The two fishermen were seized and bound in a matter of seconds. Next, they were thrown into a small boat, headed for the island. Behind the house they had thought was abandoned stood about twenty German soldiers.
One of the soldiers was a hairy giant. He was sitting on a chair, smoking a large porcelain pipe. Then he asked in excellent French: Well then, gentlemen, did you get a good catch?
The Germans had brought along the net filled with fish. Another soldier now deposited it at the feet of the Prussian. He smiled:
I see it wasn’t going too badly. But now: to business. Listen carefully and stay where you are. I think that you’re spies. I’ll take you and I’ll kill you. You were just pretending to fish in order to disguise your motives. Too bad you fell into my hands; this is war. But, as you passed by the outpost, you will surely have the password to go back. Give me this password and I’ll spare your lives.
Morissot and Sauvage turned deathly pale. They stood next to one another in silence, hands trembling. The officer continued: Nobody will ever know; you will be free to return and the secret will disappear with you. If you refuse, you face death at once. Now choose.
The pair remained still and did not open their mouths. The Prussian, ever calm, gestured towards the river and said: To think: in five minutes you’ll be at the bottom of this river. In five minutes! Surely you have parents?
Mont-Valerien was still thundering as the two fishermen remained silent. The German gave some orders in his language and moved his chair further away from the prisoners. Twelve men came to stand twenty paces from them, rifles at the ready.
The officer continued: I shall give you one minute and not a second longer. Then he rose abruptly and approached the two Frenchmen. He took Morissot by the arm and led him away, saying in a low voice: Quick; what’s the password? Your friend will never know: I’ll act like I’ve taken pity on you.
Morissot did not reply and so the Prussian dragged Sauvage away and put the same question to him. Sauvage did not reply, either. So, the Frenchmen found themselves side-by-side again as the officer began to issues his orders. The soldiers raised their weapons.
At that moment, Morissot’s gaze fell by chance on the net of fish, left in the grass, several paces from him. A ray of sunlight lit up the contents, which were still wriggling. A weakness took hold and, despite his best efforts, his eyes filled with tears.
Goodbye, Sauvage he stammered.
Sauvage replied: Goodbye, Morissot. They shook hands, trembling from head to toe.
The officer cried Fire! And twelve shots fired as one. Sauvage fell flat on his face. But Morissot, being larger, swayed on the spot before falling across his comrade. He was lying on his back and blood was seeping through his shirt.
The German issued more orders. His men went to fetch stones and rope and proceeded to bind the dead men’s feet. They then carried them onto the boat. Mont-Valerien had not stopped rumbling and was now shrouded in smoke.
Two soldiers took Morissot by the head and legs; two others seized Sauvage in the same manner. The soldiers threw the bodies into the river. The bodies were dragged down by the stones and they finally hit the water feet-first.
The water foamed and rippled for a moment before turning still. The waves grew ever shorter as they lapped against the bank. A small amount of blood floated to the surface.
The officer was unfazed. He said in a low voice: Now it’s over to the fish. As he was heading back to the house, he caught sight of the fish net lying in the grass. He scooped it up, examined it, and with a smile cried Wilhelm! A soldier wearing an apron came running; the Prussian, throwing him the dead men’s fish, ordered: Fry me these little creatures at once while they’re still alive. They’ll be delicious.
Then he took out his pipe again and began to smoke.