Elegy: to the boys of before

by Marie Baléo

After nailing a dead rose to the wall, she puts down her hammer
and wrings her hands, shipwrecked; speaks of her father,
how he once shot a boy in the head. The child had seen what
he shouldn’t have, she says. He was bound to betray them, men
of the maquis who spent nights scheming by candlelight,
days suspended to the possibility of an enemy train on the horizon,
who mouthed the names of their wives and mothers silently,
like a supplication. He used to tell her about the boy,
how he wasn’t all there. He said it tenderly,
like a father, like the orphaned younger brother
he had become. Still he had to make a decision about him,
this relinquished offer of a life, this short promise.
He thought about it every day for fifty years: the smile, the eyes.
She does not say he regretted it; he didn’t.
She speaks of the day I visited, no older than
five; how she could not tell who, of him or I,
was most timid. His quivering fingers and
brilliant eyes as he handed me an oil lamp for
my dollhouse. It is said that in the final chapter
of his illness, he became terrified of nothingness,
of endings. You would imagine the body, faced
with the prospect of death, would develop a serum of indifference.
It doesn’t. No one alive can tell us of the trials of a conscience
wrestling with its own end. Only the living feel the need
to speak. But now she has fallen silent, and I don’t ask. I don’t ask
what it takes to let go of your father’s hand, knowing this is
the last place you will see him, your old man of the war stories and
the fields, of the hunting knife and speckled boots: this room
that smells of other people’s grief. In the end, she says,
something came to claim him, a visitor
with youthful eyes and a narrow crimson depression
on his forehead. Now she wears him around her neck,
a talisman to hold for the gnarly nights
to come, for the thunderstorms of August.

Marie Baléo is a writer, poet, and editor born in 1990, who writes in English, her second language. Her work has appeared in Yemassee, CutBank, Passages North, PRISM International, Litro Magazine, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for four Best of the Net awards and for Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions. Marie edits the flash section of the literary magazine Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel and is one of the editors of the European geopolitical review Le Grand Continent. She is a Robert Bosch Foundation Global Governance Futures 2035 Fellow. She grew up in Lebanon and Norway and is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and Sciences Po Paris.