(for Patricia Barbe-Girault)
The newspapers called him "the Wolf," but his real name was Armand, or perhaps Louis. He gave both when he was captured. He didn't look like a wolf; he looked like a schoolteacher or a customs agent, a clerk of some sort. His hands were soft, his pale eyes unremarkable, and he barely cast a shadow when a light was shined upon him. The authorities said he'd murdered eight children.
"Do you believe them?" he asked me once.
"If they say it's so, it must be so," I replied.
"But of course," he said.
"Shut your mouth," I said.
He dwelled in darkness during his stay in Fort du Hâ, entombed deep in a section of the prison that we called the pit, locked in a dank, miserable cell far from the other inmates. How he wailed when they first brought him in, how he raved, sending up mad, desperate prayers to the saints, then working his way through various devils. He beat his fists bloody on the stones, tore out his hair and covered himself with his filth.
"A light! A light! Mother! Father! A light!"
I couldn't bear to hear it, had nightmares even, so I offered him a deal: If he would remain quiet while I was on duty, I'd open the feeding slot in the door of his cell and hang a lantern near it. He readily agreed, and for part of the day, at least, his blackness was broken, and he could see the hell he'd tumbled into.
He angers me, I told my commander.
Not for long, my commander replied, drawing a finger across his throat. Justice will be swift.
He scares me, I told my wife.
Shhh, my wife replied. The children can hear you.
He knows me, I told my priest.
Only God knows you, my priest replied, while demons seek to deceive.
We were warned not to talk to the men we guarded, especially not those facing the guillotine, "Le Rasoir National." But when you spend hour after hour in that cold, dripping gloom so far from the sun, so far from the pulse of the earth in the grass and the trees, so far from air not freighted with dread and despair, you sometimes need to hear the sound of another voice to be reassured that you haven't died yourself and aren't now rotting in your grave.
"Bonjour," the prisoner would say when I opened the slot at the beginning of my watch. "Or perhaps bonsoir?"
One morning I finally replied.
"It's day," I said.
"Ah, spring is here. And what year?"
"You don't know the year?"
"Time has gotten away from me."
"Still 1899. You've been down here two months."
For the most part we spoke of simple things, he on his side of the door, I on mine. He asked if the hydrangeas had bloomed in the Jardin Public, whether peas were showing up at the market yet, and how high the river was running. This last query disturbed me, because he was said to have thrown the bodies of the children into the Garonne after strangling and mutilating them. I answered without thinking when he asked, however, brooding over the question only later.
"It's running higher than normal," I said.
"What I wouldn't give," he said, "for a plate of lamprey."
As the trial drew near, La Petite Gironde printed a list of the victims: Charlotte Le Conte, age 10; Albert Hérisson, age 8; Laure Capdeville, age 7; and so on. Eight in all, though only five corpses had been found. The newspaper reported that the Wolf refused to confirm that the missing children had indeed met death at his hands, thereby denying the grieving parents even the cold comfort of certainty regarding the fates of their sons and daughters. In fact, the bastard hadn't uttered a single word about the crimes, not even to proclaim his innocence.
It made me sick to contemplate. I thought of my own girls, Simone and little Lolo, mes mignonnes, and what a horror it would be if they were snatched away from their mother and me. I'm one of those men who are occasionally plagued by bouts of melancholy, and on my worst days back then, my daughters were the only roots I had, my only anchors against a billowing sea of despondence. I imagined the parents of the missing children suddenly lost in houses and on streets they'd known their whole lives. I saw them staring blankly at little beds and little spoons and little shoes and wondering How? and Where? and Why?
For a few days after the list appeared, the feeding slot in the prisoner's door remained closed. I decided that the beast who'd caused such misery deserved no kindness, no matter how small. I stopped my ears against his pleas for light and passed the long hours of my watch hunting for meaning in the flickering shadows the lanterns threw across the stone walls.
And it was there late one afternoon that I beheld the scales, justice, and a dove, God, and understood that I'd overstepped my bounds, realized that only He has the right to pass judgment. As much as it pained me, I opened the slot again, placed a lantern near it, and fetched a bucket of water so the prisoner could wash himself.
"How long has it been?" he asked.
"Three days," I said.
I passed the list of dead children through the slot. The prisoner glanced at it briefly, then handed it back.
"So I've been found guilty?" he said.
"The trial hasn't started yet," I said.
"Yes it has," he said.
As I stated before, for the most part we spoke of the everyday; the mundane; the tiny, beautiful details of the world outside, a world the prisoner knew he would never see again. Occasionally, however, a certain humor came over him and he'd play at reminiscence.
"My father was a butcher, my mother a whore," he told me on one such day. "I was born in the gutter, and the only reason they didn't leave me there is that they needed something to blame.
"My first memory is of my mother sucking off one of her customers in whatever flophouse we were living in then. My second memory is of my father skinning a rabbit alive and chasing me with its still-kicking, still-screaming carcass, laughing at my pleas that he stop. They kept me in a closet. They used me as a footstool, a garbage pail, a chamber pot. They beat me ceaselessly and with much glee.
"Did your parents beat you?" he asked me.
"Not enough to boast about," I replied.
"I grew to enjoy the brutality," he continued. "At least there was the relief that came afterward, when the blows stopped."
I left the prison that evening thinking I had some insight into the stresses that twist some men's minds. Imagine my chagrin when, the very next day, the whole story was changed.
"Every Sunday the family sat down to an enormous lunch," the prisoner said then. "Maman, Papa, my brother and sister. The cook labored all morning to prepare the meal, and the serving girl brought in dish after dish after dish. We ate until we couldn't eat anymore, leaving just a bit of room for dessert, of course.
"Then we all went out to the garden, where Papa read his newspapers and Maman dozed over her embroidery while we children played escargot and bilboquet. At night Maman would tuck me in with three kisses, one on each cheek and the last on my forehead, to sweeten my sleep."
"What's your family name?" I asked, thinking that even though he was lying, he might still slip and reveal some fact that would help the authorities identify him.
"What's yours?" he replied.
"That's not important," I said.
"Exactly," he said.
"And what will it be tomorrow?" I said. "Descended from kings? A gypsy foundling?"
"I've lived many lives," he said. "And I'll live many more."
"I know what you're talking about, and it's blasphemy," I said.
"Really?" he said. "What did you do to get sentenced here?"
"I'm under no sentence," I said. "This is my work."
The prisoner laughed and said, "Nobody would choose this for work. You're being punished for something."
"Something I did in a previous life?"
"Thief," he whispered through the slot in the door of his cell. "Adulterer. Murderer. You dream of your crimes and wake with a stiff prick."
At times like these I had to step away, to retreat down the corridor until I could no longer hear his rants. I didn't want such depravity echoing in my head. I didn't want to take it home with me.
Jean Pissardy, age 7; Irène Dizaute-Lacoste, age 8; Charles Vignes, age 8.
I memorized the list, and the names of the dead and missing came to my lips when they shouldn't have: When I spoke to my daughters, when I kissed my wife, during my prayers. Between that and the vile insinuations the prisoner sometimes spewed, I began to feel that perhaps I was being punished for something. Why else would I be more at ease locked in a dungeon with a killer than sharing the boulevards and parks with my fellow citizens?
I turned my face from policemen for fear they'd see in my eyes the disquietude in my soul. I avoided touching the children lest my hands obey some phantom command and do them harm. "Keep your distance," I told my wife and spent my hours away from the prison confined in a cell of my own making, shutting myself up in our darkened bedchamber, where God and the devil fought over me like two dogs after the same bloody bone.
"Why do they make you stay down here with me?" the prisoner asked. "Don't they trust their own locks?"
"I'm here to see to it that you don't harm yourself," I said.
"So that they can harm me later?" he said.
"Why waste your breath on questions you already know the answers to?" I said.
The prisoner was silent for a second, then said, "Well, have no fear, they're not going to kill this sly one. Right this second Zola is writing a letter for me, just like he did for the Jew Dreyfus. I'll be free in no time."
"No, you won't," I said.
"Yes, I will," he replied.
"If I were you, I'd make peace with what's coming," I said.
When I looked in on him fifteen minutes later, I was shocked to find him hanging from a makeshift noose he'd fashioned from his tunic. He'd somehow wedged the garment into a crevice in the wall so that it would support his weight.
I unlocked the door and entered the cell. Wrapping my arms around the prisoner, I lifted his body until the tunic was no longer taut. He came to sudden kicking, punching life, and I realized he'd merely been feigning unconsciousness in order to draw me inside. I fell back as he wrenched himself free from the wall and stumbled for the door. He was not a big man, nor a strong one, so it was nothing for me to lay my arm across his throat and arrest his flight. I tightened my hold until he ceased his struggles, then I removed the noose and made him strip off his trousers.
He spent the rest of the day curled naked on his bunk, face to the wall. At the end of my watch I opened the cell door and stood on the threshold.
"If I tell the commander what you did, it'll be a straitjacket for you," I said.
The prisoner didn't respond.
"I've seen men made crazy by that thing," I continued.
Still no response.
"Can I trust you?" I said.
"Yes," the prisoner mumbled.
"I can't hear you," I said.
"Yes," he pronounced clearly.
I returned his clothes to him and shut the door. He was true to his word and made no more attempts to escape.
A month before the trial the prisoner's attorney, accompanied by a clerk and two soldiers, came down into the pit to take his charge's statement. A tall, thin man with a skittish air, the attorney first had me chain the prisoner, then ordered the soldiers to draw their pistols before he entered the cell with a scented handkerchief pressed to his nose. His clerk stood beside him, pad and pen at the ready.
"I am Maître Bergerot, the attorney assigned to the defense in this matter," he said.
The prisoner slouched on his bunk and shot the man a glare that could have driven nails.
"Assigned by whom?" he asked.
"The court," Maître Bergerot answered.
"You look more like an undertaker than an attorney," the prisoner said.
"See here, you bastard—" Maître Bergerot began.
"I see! I see! I see!" the prisoner said, shouting the attorney down.
Maître Bergerot sputtered like flame on damp wood and looked as if he might swallow his tongue. He regained his composure after a few deep draws on his hankie.
"We'll begin again," he said to his clerk, then asked the prisoner his name. The prisoner said he'd heard the newspapers had given him a nickname. Maître Bergerot told him, yes, he was being called the Wolf.
"The Wolf will do, then," the prisoner said. "No need to confuse things."
"Listen closely," Maître Bergerot said. "You've been accused of killing eight children. Do you wish to refute these charges?"
"What I'd really like is some lamprey," the prisoner said. "Do you think you could catch one for me, stork?"
Maître Bergerot stared angrily at him, then said to his clerk, "Come. There is nothing I can do for this madman, and nothing I want to do but see him pay for his crimes."
"Prepare it à la bordelaise," the prisoner called to him as he left the cell. "I'm sure your wife has a nice recipe."
I released him from his chains after the group departed, and he was silent for the rest of the day, a madman, as Maître Bergerot had said, chasing his mad thoughts.
The souls of children have more worth than the souls of adults, which, sacred though they are, have nonetheless been battered and tarnished by the various degradations encountered along life's rocky path. Thus, if a man who's killed eight men—outside of war, of course, where he'd likely be decorated for such slaughter—if a man who's killed eight men deserves death for his crimes, a man who's killed eight children surely deserves death twice over, or thrice, or eight times. Perhaps, in the glorious future we're hurtling toward, some genius will discover a way to return the dead to life again and again, and we'll have true justice at last, as we march our villains to the blade and drop their heads into the basket as many times as is necessary to square their accounts.
I'm not the man for such math though. I leave that bleak reckoning to the judges and priests, as I lack the surety required for it. I've known the dark wind that scatters comforting scripture and common wisdom like so many dead leaves, revealing the barren ground beneath. I've wandered lost through a wilderness unbounded, where no law tempered rage and no morality constrained lust. It was violent and carnal and instantly familiar: my true heart, the true heart of man, and turning from it every time to return home was like tearing myself away from a looking glass.
So, no, I'm not the one to set the sentences. I've seen through the eyes of a snake. I've seen through the eyes of a wolf. I'm too close to beastliness myself to pass judgment. Let me watch over your monsters instead, feeding them, changing the straw in their cells, until the hour comes for them to pay the price that the learned lay upon them.
At the end of the first day of the trial, the soldiers assigned to transport the prisoner to and from the courtroom returned him to his cell. He was bleeding from a cut on his forehead.
"Did they beat you?" I said.
"No," he said. "It was a stone thrown from the crowd."
Hearing footsteps on the stairs, I quickly moved the lamp away from the door and closed the feeding slot. The commander appeared out of the shadows. I was expecting Pascal, the guard who watched over the prisoner at night.
"Pascal is refusing his watch," the commander said. "The details that came out at the trial have apparently enraged him. I need you to stay on until midnight, when I'll relieve you myself."
"Fine, sir," I said. "If someone would only go around and let my wife know."
"I'll send a man right away, and also arrange for your dinner," the commander said.
"Thank you, sir," I said.
"We'll be rid of this vermin soon enough," the commander said. "Another week or two."
A few hours later I heard someone else descending. This time it was Pascal, along with two other guards from another section of the prison. They carried clubs and breathed cheap brandy.
"Step aside," Pascal said. "We mean to take the bastard."
"By whose order?" I said.
"By order of the citizens of Bordeaux," Pascal said. "There are hundreds of them at the gates, demanding satisfaction."
"Satisfaction isn't justice," I said.
"Unlock the door," Pascal said.
"I won't," I said. "And neither will you."
One of the other guards, a sadistic oaf called Dédé, sprang forward and brought his club down on my shoulder with all the strength of his drunken righteousness. The blow shook me to my toes and drove tears into my eyes, but I stood my ground. Dédé raised his club to strike me again and would have cracked my skull if Pascal hadn't stopped him, saying, "Enough, man. He's one of us after all."
"No, he isn't," Dédé said. "He's a damned coward."
The oaf backed away but looked as if he were waiting for any excuse to continue the beating.
"This scum doesn't deserve your mercy," Pascal said to me.
"I'm a guard, and he's my prisoner," I said. "It's simply my duty to see that he comes to no harm."
Pascal blinked twice and squinted at me, then turned for the stairs. "Let's go," he called to the others. They followed reluctantly, Dédé muttering over his shoulder, "You'll answer to the people for this."
As soon as their footsteps faded, I sank to the ground, my left arm numb, my collarbone throbbing. This was too much for me. If they returned, they could have him, and the devil take them all. It was just me and the rats, though, until the commander arrived and sent me home for the night.
Where are my footmen this morning? the prisoner asked.
The trial's over, I replied.
And the verdict? the prisoner asked.
Death, I replied.
What a pity, the prisoner said.
It took nearly a week for the guillotine to be transported from Paris and erected in the square in front of the fort. The prisoner remained calm until the last day, when a final, furious storm of lunacy left him more lost than ever. I looked in on him at noon and found him pacing his cell. At one he'd stripped off his clothing. At two, he was abusing himself most frantically.
"Tell me about your children," he called out when he sensed me at the feeding slot. "Little girls? Little boys?"
Revulsion like I'd never known nearly doubled me over, and it was as if I were the first man uttering the first word when I shouted, "Enough!"
"Do you bathe them in the evening?" he continued. "Kiss their little—"
"Another word, and I'll kill you," I said.
"Me? Your dear cell mate?" he said. "I think not." He thrust his free hand through the slot. "Come, Brother, let me touch some soft part of you. The underside of your forearm, your eyelids, your tiny cock."
"Enough!" I roared again and laid the hot lantern glass against his grasping fingers. When he pulled them back in pain, I slammed shut the slot and moved off down the corridor, where I begged God to help me douse the fire of my outrage with the blessed waters of compassion.
The commander requested I come in early the next day to assist him in readying the prisoner for execution. The prisoner spent his last hour alone with a priest, and then, at dawn, the commander and I entered the cell. We bound the prisoner's wrists, and the commander cut away the collar of his tunic. Because of the awfulness of his crimes, he was not to be allowed to enjoy the light of his last morning. It was left to me to place the black hood over his head. As I pulled it down, just before it covered his face, I sent him a thought—I'll pray for you—but he wouldn't look me in the eye.
That was the last I saw of him. A trio of soldiers led him to a waiting wagon, which carried him out to the guillotine. I was told he went to his death quietly. The blade fell, the crowd that had gathered to watch cheered, the body was carted away.
The priest returned to the pit shortly after the execution. I sat where I always sat, staring into the empty cell and trying to work up the strength to prepare it for its next occupant.
"You were his guard?" the priest asked me.
"Yes, Father," I replied.
He handed me an envelope. "He asked me to give this to you," he said.
Inside was the list of the Wolf's victims from the newspaper. At the top of the page the prisoner had scrawled the words Ma Confession, and next to every name, those of the known dead and those of the missing, he'd written Oui.
I passed the list to the commander. He was pleased, elated even, and told me the rest of the day was mine, a reward for outstanding service. I climbed out of the pit, left the prison, and wandered the early-morning streets in a daze, unused to the bright sunlight and the raucous exuberance of the city coming to life. Women shouted from window to window across narrow alleys, shop owners joked as they set up their sidewalk displays, and children, everywhere children, their joyous voices ringing out like the songs of unseen birds.
I eventually found myself on the steps of Saint-Michel and collapsed there like a weary pilgrim. I'd lived in the shadows of its blackened stones and jagged spires since birth. As a boy I used to imagine that the church was God's armored fist and the tower beside it His sword. One felt safe with something like that always so close. Safe. Oh, how I longed to be a boy again.
Perhaps if I talked to a priest, I thought, he'd have some words of reassurance about the thickness of the walls between worlds and how one can wrestle evil without being infected by it. I wouldn't have believed anything he said, but it might've provided temporary solace, like a soothing balm for a wound that can never heal.
I couldn't bring myself to enter the church just then, however, to return to darkness and heavy silence no matter how sanctified, so I continued to sit on the steps and marvel at the many delights the morning brought my way. The swifts darting so skillfully among the chimneys, the sound of a teacher calling her students to class, the smell of bread from an old woman's basket. And then, both ashamed and unashamed, I bowed my head and wept.
Title graphic: "Sentenced" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2014.