Marie-Hélène and Pepper at Le Havre
By Timothy Ruppert - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA - 1 December 2013
Strange as it may seem today, our late Mother Marie-Hélène did not always belong to Chamonix. As we sisters know, she was born far from the Alps in Paksé, near the Mekong River, to a Laotian woman -- her very image -- and an administrateur colonial, later wounded in the Great War. And the older sisters told us of Mother’s early womanhood, of her life among the Mill Hill Daughters of Charity and of her work (at times miraculous, those venerable ladies said) in the London hospitals during the Luftwaffe attacks. Yet Marie-Hélène, like the evergreens and the mountains and the icefalls of the Mer de Glace, was Chamonix. I see Mont Blanc and recall at once how that sovereign peak filled the window behind her desk. I remember how compassionately Mother treated the citizens and the guests of Chamonix, the winter athletes and the picture snappers and the glacier walkers. Naturally, history places her among the first physicians in France to prefer isoniazid to streptomycin in the treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis (a valiant medical decision in the very early 1950s). But Mother cooled many fevers, salved many wounds, and delivered many babies over her long life. For all that, Marie-Hélène did not arrive at the Convent of Sainte-Lucie until she was forty-one. Before then, and before London, the city of her life was her father’s hometown of Le Havre, where she grew up, where she returned after the Liberation, and where, as a nine-year-old, she saved her first lives.
Marie-Hélène spent her girlhood with her retired father in a modest home in the Rue Pénélope, just within sight of the English Channel. She thrilled to watch the sailboats arriving or departing in the harbor. She smiled also to see the bright colors of the shopfront windows and the fruit sellers’ wheeled tables and to hear the music from the cafés, merry songs borne on the wind toward the water. But her favorite delight in Le Havre was her May Altar, hidden in the woods off the main walking path in the park behind her school. At first, the tiny shrine comprised a statuette of the Blessed Virgin (Marie-Hélène had won this for her drawing of Saint Francis welcoming several small animals into his presence), a prayerbook, and a cloth doll that her late mother had sewn. After numerous visits and considerable squirreling, however, Marie-Hélène perfected the May Altar with candles in blue and white glass, a rosary, a scapular, and beautiful flowers relocated to this secret soil. The girl protected the shrine with a white blanket and placed dead branches and rocks along its edge to keep the wind from taking the blanket away; only the transplanted blossoms remained uncovered. Marie-Hélène tended to the site almost every day.
Like most intelligent, quiet children of whom adults are fond, Marie-Hélène had an enemy. Plump, blonde Genevieve showed a keen interest in tormenting Marie-Hélène at every opportunity, and, like most selfish and unimaginative children, Genevieve excelled at purposeful cruelty. Together with her fellow-traveler, Thérèse, Genevieve taunted and provoked Marie-Hélène, who often bowed her head or fled or wept but seldom challenged her brave persecutors.
One afternoon, Marie-Hélène’s teacher assigned her students to find a picture of something unique from the past. Each student would present her picture to the class and explain why the image proved fascinating or amusing or surprising. After class that day, the teacher asked Marie-Hélène in private to select an image not religious in nature, as a way to challenge the girl’s intellectual resourcefulness. “You love animals very dearly,” she said. “You could show a creature from long ago, something pretty or strange. Perhaps your father will help you.” Marie-Hélène frowned on her way to her May Altar. Following dinner that evening, she spoke with her father about the assignment. He showed her a big book with photographs glued to its heavy beige pages.
“Wat Phu -- a beautiful temple close to where you were born.”
“Madame Szabo wants me to have a picture of an animal.”
“Do you like these, then? Irrawaddy dolphins. They live at Si Phan Don.”
“She said it should be a yesterday animal, not a today animal. So dogs and cats and birds and rabbits and fish won’t help, because aren’t they the same now as when Saint Francis lived?”
So her father took the girl to the library in the Place des Sirènes and showed her a volume entitled Animals of the Ice Age in Europe. Marie-Hélène clapped her hands to see the fantastical beasts, as tremendous as Goliath, sketched and painted in those pages (she quieted her joy within a moment, though, for courtesy’s sake). There, she saw an elk from Ireland; a polar bear from England; a lion from Spain; and a great furry elephant from France -- perhaps from Le Havre! “These are yesterday animals,” her father said, “because they don’t exist anymore, except in picture books.” She marveled at them all, but she found most astonishing a creature called a woolly rhinoceros. “May we take the book home, so I can draw this one for school?” Marie-Hélène spent the evening copying the image. She gave the rhinoceros a brown coat and ivory-white horns, and she placed his hooves in the deep snow of a lonely icescape. Beyond him, a range of treeless cliffs ridged the glacial distance.
Marie-Hélène’s picture of the now-extinct animal pleased her teacher and impressed her classmates, few of whom could believe that such a creature once ambled over the frosty plateaus of a continent without cities. Not surprisingly, Genevieve (who showed Napoleon crossing the Alps on a cream-colored horse named Marengo) and Thérèse (who brought the image of a Grande Armée soldier sabering the neck off a champagne bottle) expressly disliked Marie-Hélène’s work. After school that day, Marie-Hélène made her way through the park but soon sensed someone following her. When she heard a sound of dead leaves crumbling underfoot, she tightened her hands into fists and turned. A small, bony dog with terribly matted bluish-grey fur ran up to her, circled her twice, and nimbly took up a position a meter away. The dog, panting with alacrity, gazed at her. “Why, you’re a sweet little soul! And in such a state! Who are you? Do you have a name?” She knelt and reached out her hand, but the dog fled toward the woods because something behind her scared him. Marie-Hélène neither looked nor rose; she simply lowered her head and stared at the grass.
“Do you know why you drew that ugly old monster? Because you’re a monster, too! An ugly little Asian monster. And I hate monsters.”
Genevieve pushed Marie-Hélène to the ground, and Thérèse laughed. “We should take you to the harbor and push you off a pier! Then you’d drown!”
“Maybe you’d float back to China!”
“I’m French,” Marie-Hélène told the grass. “I’m not from China. I’m as French as you are.”
Plump, blonde Genevieve again shoved Marie-Hélène. “You’re not French! You’re an ugly Chinese monster! We’ll drown you! We’ll throw you into the water so you freeze and stop breathing! Then the tide will take you to England and everyone will be happy that you’re dead!”
“Let me alone let me alone let me alone!” She heard leaves hastily crushed; a moment went by, and she felt the pressure of soft fingers on her shoulder.
“Marie-Hélène?” She kept her eyes down as Madame Szabo spoke. “Marie-Hélène, listen. After today, if those girls trouble you again, you will tell me. Do you promise?” The child liked the scent of Madame’s powder-blue handkerchief. “Jesus said to turn the other cheek, and that’s what you have done. He’s proud of you. Now come with me.” Marie-Hélène stood up and took her teacher’s hand. The child thought she saw the little blue dog sitting far off by the park’s northern gate, but her eyes were sore and everything looked blurry, so she could not be certain.
Marie-Hélène said nothing about the incident to her father that evening, but she knew that Madame Szabo would talk to him, if she had not already done so. The girl worried far more how
Genevieve and Thérèse would respond: when Madame said to report any more fighting “after today,” Marie-Hélène understood that “before tomorrow” Madame would address the matter with her tormentors’ parents. Marie-Hélène trembled to think that the two girls might make good on their sinister promise to cast her from the dock into the harbor’s frigid night-waters. To comfort herself, the girl read Psalms 23 and 24 by candlelight in her bedroom and drew a picture of the King of Glory escorting her and the little blue dog from the park toward a golden forest of laughing animals and tall flowers. She drew another picture of the dog and decided to call him Pepper if she saw him again. Then she fell into a dreamless sleep.
The next morning, Marie-Hélène walked to school very briskly; at one point she began to run because she thought she heard someone chasing her. Neither Genevieve nor Thérèse attended classes that day. Marie-Hélène welcomed the respite but took a back way home on a hillside road so she would not find the girls in the park, waiting.
After a few dry days in what now seemed a rainless autumn, Marie-Hélène feared for the flowers around her May Altar and so resolved to risk a visit. As she walked along the little road, she looked past the knotted shrubs and thorny vines that covered the hill and watched the boats drifting upon the serene waters. Such lucky people, not to know Genevieve and Thérèse! How splendid to be a grown-up who could sail the days away without worries and cares! She smiled still as she came to where the road offered access into the woods behind the park.
Marie-Hélène arrived at her May Altar, where slivers of blue and white glass now mingled with tiny black beads, fragments of paper, and mangled blossoms. Wisps of cotton from her eviscerated doll bounced along the ground; a few were caught on the edges of dead leaves and splintered branches. On the blanket, a hand had written “Asian Witch” in red lipstick.
Because she could not find her Virgin statuette, Marie-Hélène took the doll’s husk only and, still sobbing, dashed toward the hillside road. Not very far along the road, she saw the two girls encircling the little blue dog whom she had drawn a few evenings before. Genevieve swung at the dog with a stick while Thérèse prevented him from fleeing.
“You’re a monster! I hate you, dog-monster! I’ll break your leg!”
Marie-Hélène cleared her eyes and walked up to the two girls with her small hands tight at her sides. There was silence in Le Havre about the space of half a minute.
“I won’t let you hurt him.”
The bony creature darted several meters away but kept his eyes on Marie-Hélène.
“We got in trouble because of you, witch. I’ll do what I want to that dog.”
“Leave him alone.”
“I’ll smash his face in and we’ll drown you in the harbor.”
Plump, blonde Genevieve shoved her, but Marie-Hélène stayed on her feet. The smaller girl said, “Take me to the harbor, then. I dare you to murder me. Why not? Take me now and drown me.” Genevieve and Thérèse kept still. “I’ll even turn my back so I can’t see you coming at me. You’re both big girls, and I’ll let you do whatever you wish. So carry me to the water beyond the hillside.” Marie-Hélène turned toward the blue dog, the dead doll still in her hand; she could no longer see her tormentors. With her eyes on the small dog several meters away, she said, “I have a dare for both of you. Go ahead and kill me right now. I’ll let you take me to the water and drown me, if you so very much hate me. But if you let me live, then you have to leave me and my May Altar and that dog alone, forever and ever, or I’ll tell all the girls at school that I dared you and you were both scared of me and they’ll laugh at you for the rest of your lives. But otherwise I’ll be quiet because I can keep a secret. So murder me now or leave us alone for good. I dare you I dare you I dare you.”
Marie-Hélène whispered as she approached the blue dog. “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.” She listened to the leaves break apart beneath her feet. “Benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.” The dog panted, waiting motionlessly. “Sancta Maria, Mater Dei” -- a twig cracked -- “priez pour nous, pauvres pécheurs -- nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae.” She reached her hand toward the dog so he could smell her, and he licked her fingers. “You may follow me home, little boy. And if Father says yes, you can live with us and you’ll be Pepper. Come.”
Marie-Hélène and Pepper walked together to the rue Pénélope.
“Now, Pepper, you don’t want to be a stinky dog. You want to be a fancy dog.” Marie-Hélène bathed the stray in warm, soapy water and picked the worms out of his fur. She then presented him to her father. “I think he was abandoned. He lived in the Parc de Sonya and nobody cared about him. Please, may he stay with us? I promise to look after him.”
“Young lady, our francs have wings, they fly away like little pigeons. We may have to give up a bit to keep him properly.”
“Truly I promise.”
“One eye’s blue, the other eye brown. You’ve a very handsome lad there. So long as no one claims him as lost, you may have him.” Marie-Hélène clapped her hands and kissed her father’s cheek. “I’ll catch a few francs in mid-flight and buy him a collar tomorrow. He’s a Shetland sheepdog -- they come from islands in the north, across the sea.” On the next school day, Marie-Hélène asked Madame Szabo if anyone in the neighborhood had lost a pet dog. She answered that another teacher, Mademoiselle Fleury, had lost Dusty for a few days, but Dusty was a tortoiseshell cat with cherry eye, and anyway Mademoiselle found Dusty in the rue Bandit just last night. Marie-Hélène smiled as she walked through the park toward the woods.
She waited for the voice to catch up to her.
Thérèse and Marie-Hélène looked at one another quietly. After a time, Thérèse lowered her schoolbag to the grass and took from it the Blessed Mother statuette. She gave the figurine to Marie-Hélène. After a time, the smaller girl said “Merci” and continued on toward the woods. She heard sere leaves crackling behind her. The sound kept up with her all the way into the woods. Marie-Hélène restored the Virgin to her accustomed place and then set herself to the task of recuperating the May Altar. Thérèse put her schoolbag on the flat of a tree stump and helped the other girl to tidy the shrine grounds. “When I grow up I want to sew beautiful dresses and work in Paris for Coco Chanel. I’ll make a new blanket for you.”
“I think we should be friends.”
“I’ll make a new doll for you too.” She wept. Some trees away, a bird sang for a moment
amid spent limbs.
That evening, Marie-Hélène thought about things as she and Pepper watched the ink-dark rain fall over Le Havre.
Eighty-two years later, Mother Marie-Hélène died at Sainte-Lucie, just as springtime reappeared in Chamonix. The convent bell brought hundreds to say goodbye. We buried Mother in a white shawl that a late friend once made for her, and she held both a rosary and a red dog collar in her folded hands.
Copyright © 2013 Timothy Ruppert. All Rights Reserved.