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Hands Full

a translation of George Simenon's (1945) Les Mains pleines

He had been lying there for two hours without sleeping, his eyes fixed on a corner of the room where the moon illuminated the whitewashed wall, a black frame that contained a print, the posts of his sister's bed. He could discern his father's snoring in the neighboring room. He had intentionally chosen a market night, because on those days his father would drink a few glasses of white wine and be sleepy.

He got out of bed, dressed silently, his bare feet sticking to the coolness of the tiles. He knew well, by the quality of the silence, that his sister wasn't asleep – he sensed her tense nerves. He could nearly have foretold at what moment, as he took a step, she would reveal her wakefulness.

"Are you going there?"

It was hardly a whisper. The vibration of the syllables just reached him, and, shoes in his hands, he approached her bed, touched with his lips a forehead moist with her scent.

"I think this is it," he breathed. "Tomorrow, you will tell them... "

How had she guessed? And he, on his side, for several days, had he not been sure that she knew? She'd never said anything. Besides, she worked all day long as a maid for the butcher and she didn't even take meals with them. It had always been like that – they hardly spoke and she knew. Only with him. You had to believe that there was a link between them that didn't exist between other humans.

She didn't cry, didn't give him any advice. He moved away, opened the door and continued to feel her open eyes turned toward him in the blackness of the room. He left by the courtyard, jumped the hedge at the bottom of the garden and crossed the wet fields behind the church. Far enough from the village, he put on his shoes and tied them.

He was very quiet. He had thought through these movements so often that he accomplished them mechanically. A thick moon swam in the sky. A layer of moisture spread across the meadows and fields.

In that way he covered two kilometers, close to the river, the point that he had decided, and there, in the hollow of a dead chestnut, he located the shotgun.

Would he be lucky? Would he have to do this again another two or three nights? His father's gun, that he had dug up fifteen days ago without his knowledge, was perfectly clean, without a trace of rust. In each barrel was a cartridge of buckshot, and three more in his pocket, within reach of his hand. But would he have time to reload? Better not to count on it.

He got to his look-out, the site he had prepared, behind the hedge. He saw the road that came up toward him from the bridge. And, on the tarmac he had taken the precaution, this very day, to make a mark in chalk. When the motorcycle arrived at this mark, not before, he had to fire.

Afterward, everything would be changed. Now, he was alone, he was nothing. He was, in the night, a boy of twenty with cold-numbed fingers. The air was so still that he could hear, at more than hundred meters, the whisper of the river where there was sometimes a slight plop. A water rat? A fish?

More than a week ago, nine days, he had gone to find them, over there in the forest, a dozen kilometers away, where he knew that they hid. In the middle of the day. He had advanced, hands in pockets, throat tight. He had always expected to see the gleam of the barrel of a submachine-gun, but they let him get to the farm. A big guy wearing dungarees and clogs sat on the doorstep, playing with a child.

"What do you want?"

"To see the chief."

"Where are you from?"

He had named his village, that he worked as a cartwright, and from the back of the room some boys emerged, spread them themselves around and watched him.

"Do you think we should wake him?"

He slept in the straw of the barn, the chief. He was a very young boy too, curly hair, blue eyes, with a blue sweater with narrow red stripes and sandals. A Parisian. A mechanic. Bristling with golden straw.

"You are well kind, my boy. But what the hell do you want us to do with you? We have one rifle for four and a couple of clodhoppers for two...

That phrase he repeated to himself all along his path back...

"...one rifle for four and a couple of clodhoppers for two..."

And he had presented himself with empty hands! He was ashamed of it now, like having committed some faux pas with very high-class people. Was it perhaps the desire to erase that shame, even more than the need to no longer be alone, that enflamed him while he waited behind the hedge?

There had been nights when, from his bed, he had heard motorcycles passing at all hours. Autos also, but he couldn't think of autos. He heard one of then, very far off, that turned before reaching the river. Then silence. He wanted to smoke. The gun was truly frozen. Bells, those of his village, seemed to chase after him.

Then, suddenly, finally, a buzzing which could not be mistaken. He didn't move, didn't shudder... had maybe a little too much saliva in his throat. It was at first very slow, seeming that the motorcycle would never reach the river. After that, it was very fast, very simple, nearly too much so. The machine, with its weak pink gleam, touched the chalk mark and he fired. The motor whined louder, as if to explode... the motorcycle rolled on about another twenty meters, with its rider dancing wildly, landing very close to the ditch, while the motor continued to whine.

He hadn't moved. He waited. The man moved in the wet grass. He fired his second shot.

At that precise instant, hadn't his sister shuddered in her bed? In any case, he thought about her, without knowing why. He put the shotgun back in the hole of the dead tree, slipped onto the road. First he had to stop the motor, to extinguish the light.

Then, calmly, without panicking, without forgetting a detail, doing what he had to do. He didn't need to think. He knew. And he was without astonishment.

First, the Jerry. He had a carbine on his back and a revolver in his belt. With the meticulous care of an ant he stashed the carbine in the tree, along with the ammunition. The boots? He wanted to take them, but he had not foreseen that and he preferred not to depart in any way from his program.

Some two hundred meters away there was an abandoned well into which he slipped the cadaver. It was no longer cold out, but very warm. He just had to drag the motorcycle into the meadow and take the tires. He had thought so well about all this that he had the tools in his pockets.

The machine, in its turn, toppled into the well.

In that way he would avoid reprisals to his village. Nothing was left on the road, not a shred of glass.

But there were still kilometers to cover, with tires on his shoulders. Dawn was about to break when he reached the shoemaker's door that he had seen three days earlier in a neighboring village. A window opened up. A man in a nightshirt.

"It's you? At this hour?"

"I've brought what I promised..."

Because the other had said. "Boots? I can't give you boots. But then if you could find me two motorcycle tires I might manage to... "

He wore his slippers in the shop.

"Aren't you thirsty?"

"No... But I need you to lend me an old sack to carry them in... Four pair then..."

"Small or large?"

"Preferably large..."

The shoemaker was thinking, of course, but he preferred, him also, not to seem to think.

"If you go home, tell your father..."

"I'm not going right back..."

"Good luck, then..."

He remembered, "Oh, the bag, you'll have to bring back the bag..."

Some light was beginning to show in the stalls, women in the yards with buckets of milk.

It was a little after 6:00 when he got to the farm in the woods. Or rather, at fifty meters away a voice, "Stop! Come this way... On the left... "

He walked without seeing anyone and a man emerged, who felt the bag.

"What do you have in there?"

"Boots... new... four pair..."

Sweat poured off his forehead, his legs weakened. He was in a such a hurry now, to enter this house, to drop himself onto a bench, close to the others, that he blurted out quickly, in unintelligible words, all his treasure.

"Report the two tires of the Jerry... but don't worry... he's in the well... and there's a carbine in the tree... and then this..."

A beautiful black automatic, gleaming, that he produced in offering to the doorman, with tears in his eyes.

This time, he had come with his hands full.

ST

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