We return to Philomene, Pascal and Grandpere, living under German occupation. I'm striving mightily to pick up the pace, so expect the next installment within a week or less.
Chateau Ducloux, France. September 26th, 1914. The stench was terrible.
“How many do you have down here?” Philomene asked.
In the darkness she could hear the soft clucking of many birds, and their smell was overpowering. As her eyes began to adjust to the dim light, she could see birds moving in the shadows and occasional glimmers of birds’ eyes from the darkness.
“Four dozen,” said Hortense Chartier. “It was the most I thought I could hide when the Germans came to take their inventory. As it was, they asked why I had so few birds for such a large poultry barn, but I said that there’d been pestilence and I’d had to destroy several dozen sick birds.”
“How do they do without sunlight?”
Surely a root cellar was a terrible place to try to keep poultry. It seemed certain they would sicken. But perhaps if Madame Chartier were diligent with the cleaning they would be all right. Certainly, they would not be cold. The ground provided insulation, and the body hear of nearly fifty birds made the cellar almost uncomfortably warm.
“They do well enough,” the farmer’s wife assured. “I bring a lantern down for several hours each day at the same time in the afternoon, so that they will know how the days are passing and when to lay. Don’t mind the smell, it’s only because it’s close and warm down here. I clean the floor out every day.”
“I believe you, but it is rather close.”
Hortense led the way back up the ladder, into the shed beneath which the root cellar was dug. They closed the trapdoor and pushed the untidy pile of grain sacks, ropes and horse blankets which concealed the entrance back into place.
The farmwife wiped her hands on her apron, then exclaimed as she looked at Philomene. “Oh, your dress and your hat. I am sorry.”
She was able to help Philomene pick the stray feathers and bits of straw off the hat, but trying to brush at the dust and grime which had got on the skirts of her dress as they climbed in and out of the cellar only seemed to grind the stains further into the wool.
“Don’t let it worry you,” Philomene said, waving her away. “You told me that you needed help. What can I do?”
Hortense glanced around as if guilt inspired the fear she would be overheard. “I get three or four dozen eggs each day from them, and since the Germans don’t know about them I’m free to sell them. But I need feed for them. And--” She hesitated, lips pressed together, eyes down, ashamed of what came next. “I’ve been selling the eggs to other farms, but they have their own hidden livestock. I don’t get very much. I thought, if I could find a way to sell them in town, I could get a lot more for them. With Mathieu gone, and the Germans requisitioning my milk and the eggs from the chickens they know about, I have so little to live on. And surely people in town must be wanting fresh food.”
The thought of a reliable supply of fresh eggs was indeed a powerful temptation. During the first two weeks after the German occupation of the town, supplies had broken down. Panicked villages bought everything possible off the shelves, stocking up for the emergency of unknown duration, and German soldiers tired of their army rations had bought up the rest. Grandpere had hidden away a few cases of canned goods and other non-perishables, so there had been no danger that the family would starve, not soon at any rate, but the shelves were bare and the only fresh food was what came ripe in the kitchen garden.
Disgusted by this chaotic state of affairs, the German commandant had decided to organize the local economy. Records were taken of how many people lived in each household, and inventories were taken of all livestock and other food sources. Rather than going to market, food brought in from the outlying farms now went to the army post, where it was registered and most of it sent on to feed the occupying army. The rest was then passed on to the shopkeepers, along with instructions for how much per person each household could purchase. According to the new order, no one would starve, but they would be hungry in a very organized fashion.
Yet however appealing fresh eggs might be, how could she arrange something when Madame Chartier, used as she was to bringing goods to market, was unable to?