Memory of the Night of 4

John Hartley Williams

after Victor Hugo

Two bullets to the head, the child had taken.
It was a clean, honest, humble, quiet place.
In blessing, above a portrait, hung a palm cross.
His aged granny stood there, trembling, lost.
In silence, we removed his clothes. His mouth
hung open, pale, the eye-life drowned
in death. Each arm fell useless from its socket.
A boxwood spinning top came spinless from his pocket.
You could put a finger in his holes of wounds.
Have you seen mulberries bleeding in the afternoon?
His skull split open reminded me of firewood.
Granny watched as we undressed the lad,
saying – Look how white he is! Look how damp!
His hair is glued across his temples. Bring the lamp!
When this was done, she took him in her lap.
The night was dark and you could hear the crack
of shots outside where they were killing more.
– It’s time, we said, to bury him. From a drawer
in a walnut wardrobe, we took a linen sheet.
She moved his body closer to the grate
as if the flicker of the fire would heal him.
Death’s touch would not be warmed so easily.
Then she drew the stockings from his legs,
held his feet in her old hands, and bent her head.
– What do you call this, she cried, for pity’s sake?
His teachers liked him. He was always wide awake,
applied himself. He’d always be the one to write
if I’d to write a letter. He wasn’t even eight!
Do we slaughter children now? Is that to be their fate?
They shot him just for walking down the street.
He’d little Jesus’s nature. He was mild and sweet!
I can see him there, this morning, by that window, playing … !
She choked with sobs. Then her voice rose, lamenting
– I’d have swapped my life for his. What use to me are years?
What becomes of me? I’m now alone, Messieurs.
All of his mother I had was the spirit in his heart.
Would killing me instead have mattered to a Bonaparte?
Why this child, Messieurs? Is this what he deserved?
We stood there, listened, but we found no words.
– Could they have had a reason? Is this la politique?
He never shouted slogans, never Vive la République!

With our hats in our hands, dark as shadows, silent,
we looked on, gravely, at this desperate bereavement.

– Dear lady, I fear you’ll never grasp the politics of this.
Monsieur Napoleon, that’s his real name, is a prince
who worships poverty. He loves servants and palaces,
loves hounds, horses, gambling, soft mattresses
and at the same time he is saving society,
the family, and the church. Naturally,
he’ll make sure Saint-Cloud is full of roses
this summer, where he can listen to the praises
of mayors and aldermen who come to flatter,
and old women, this is the kernel of the matter,
with their poor grey fingers the times make tremble
will have to sew shrouds for children of seven.