There were five children talking things over at the corner of the street of The-Cat-Who-Goes- Fishing and the Boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris. They called themselves The Gang of The-Cat-Who-Goes- Fishing. They had spent countless nights in the same air raid shelter during the five years of occupation and even had managed, though they were only children, to play tricks on the Germans. And now they went to school together, came back together, and played together on free days. At this time they were all surrounding ten-year-old Charles. Remi, who was twelve and the oldest, with his twin sister Louise, said, “What did the doctor say?”
“He said,” answered Charles, “that it was all because she has not had the proper food for five years – not since she was born.”
Louise said, “It’s tough. Your father died a year after he came back as a prisoner from Germany. And poor Zezette not knowing him. I remember.”
“I remember too,” said Remi. “It was the time of the first British air raid.”
“No use speaking about that,” said nine-year-old Jules. “It’s what to do for Zezette now.”
“Sure,” said Remi. “It makes me sick. I wish we could give Zezette a beautiful Easter. When I think of all the festivals we used to have – Christmas, the New Year, King’s Day, Mardi Gras, and chocolate Easter eggs…”
“Oh, don’t,” said Jules sharply. “You and Louise are always talking of Before.”
“Well,” said Louise hotly, “please yourself. But it’s true about oranges on the Christmas tree, and the cake of the kings on Three King’s Day, crepes for Mardi Gras, and chocolate eggs at Easter.”
Paul, who was eight, said, “Chocolate Easter eggs! If only we would have just plain eggs.”
“For Zezette,” said Jules.
“That’s it,” said Charles. “For Easter.”
There was a silence. The circle broke, and they all stepped back and leaned against the wall of the house. After a while Louise said, “You must have ration points to buy eggs.”
“Yes,” said Charles, “Zezette should have one egg a week, you know, being five years old. But you cannot find any. And the last one mother found, a month ago, she had to pay twenty-five cents for. She cannot afford it. She doesn’t make enough at the factory.”
Jules said, “There are eggs. In the country. If one can go there.”
“Yes,” said Charles. “That’s what the doctor said. But he said you cannot buy in the country with money. You have to have things to exchange.”
“Of course!” they all answered at once. They all knew about that. They were used to that Indian way of living – barter, barter for everything.
“And to buy from country people,” Jules went on, “you have to have the real thing to offer, like shoes, a wool blanket, a sweater…”
“Sure,” said Remi. “And nobody has any of those things anymore.”
“Except the very rich people,” said Paul.
“Come on,” said Jules, “there’s no use talking. Let’s go to the Luxembourg Gardens.”
“Goodbye,” said Charles, shaking hands with the gang. “Have to get home. It’s only four-thirty and mother doesn’t come home from work before seven. Have to keep Zezette company.”
They said goodbye a little sadly, but not too sadly, because, as Louise said, “Well, that’s life.” And Charles, wishing he were going to the garden with the gang instead of going up the old stairway alone to take care of Zezette, shrugged his small shoulders and muttered, “That’s life.”
Yes, they all knew. But on their way to the Luxembourg Garden, Paul, who was the youngest of the four, kept saying as he kicked a stray pebble in front of him, “Plain eggs for Zezette at Easter.”
“Shush … say …,” went on Jules, stopping the others on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. “The Gang of The-Cat- Who-Goes-Fishing should do something about this!”
“Sure,” hastened Paul, who was very fond of Zezette. “Zezette belongs to the gang too.”
Remi turned to Louise. “You are so good at knitting, Louise. Couldn’t you knit something and we would sell it, that is, barter it for eggs?”
“Knit with what?” asked Louise, her eyes blazing. “Are you crazy? There isn’t any yarn anywhere,” she added bitterly.
They went on walking in silence. No, there wasn’t any yarn to be had anywhere. What, what could The Gang of The-Cat-Who-Goes-Fishing find to barter for eggs? And Easter was only a month off. What? What? thought Louise as she lay awake that night. She and Remi lived alone with their father. Her mother had caught a cold during the flight before the German army in 1940 and had died of pneumonia. Louise was the woman of the family now, just as Charles was the man of the family in his home.
Next day was Thursday. There was no school. It was cleaning house day for Louise. She washed, she swept, she ran the dust rag on the floor. She picked up the old wool rag to shake it outside and nearly dropped it in the street. The old dirty rag was a discarded sweater of her mother’s, so worn out, so full of holes that Louise had not noticed it before, not really. Carefully Louise spread the rag out on the floor. No, she thought, it’s hopeless. Even if I could wash it, it could not possibly be of any use. She sat there on the floor fingering the dirty old thing. Suddenly she picked up the piece, shook it out the window a long time, then brushed it, and set it to soak in a pan of water. She could not spare any soap.
The next day, before going to school, she changed the water which was very black, poured fresh water, and let the rag soak again. At night she changed the water once more and also the next day. On Saturday night, instead of using soap for her own bath, she used it on the rag. And the next day she rinsed and rinsed until the water came all clear. When Remi came around he did not ask any questions, but he said, “Let me wring it dry for you.” And later he said, “My room has the afternoon sun. You can put it there to dry.”
And Louise said, “That’s a good idea. I won’t put it right in the sun, but the room is warm.” She did, and three days later the old wool rag was dry. It looked awful, but it was pretty clean.
Then Louise started to unravel the whole thing. It took her ages because it was all in pieces and she had to tie the yarn together all the time. But finally she had four big balls of yarn. The next day, when they had said goodbye to Charles after school, she showed the yarn to the rest of the gang. They touched it respectfully, caressed it, ran their cheeks against it, and weighed it in their cupped hands.
Louise said, “I’m going to make a sweater.”
“Won’t be a pretty color,” said Paul. “What of it?” challenged Remi, somewhat angrily.
“Sure,” said Jules. “Take it easy. But Paul is right. That ugly color will make it hard to barter.
“He is right,” said Louise. “It should be dyed. But I have no dye,” she added sadly.
That evening as she was getting supper there was a knock at the door. It was Jules. He gave her an envelope. “Listen, here is the dye. I stood in line two hours to get matches for the woman who runs the notions store, and in exchange she gave me the dye. Dark blue. That’s all she had. So long! All for the gang!” he shrieked, tumbling downstairs.
The yarn was dyed, and Louise began to knit. She was a fast knitter and it was not long before she was working on the last sleeve. It was on a Thursday afternoon, and she took her work with her to show it to the others. Zezette could not get up yet, so Charles would not be able to come to the gardens.
The gang was very excited. Remi was proud of his sister, and they started discussing how many eggs they might get for the sweater. Jules said sharply, “No use kidding ourselves. We won’t get much. The wool is too thin in too many places.”
Remi snatched the sweater and held it against the sunlight. It was only too true. Louise did not say anything. She felt like weeping. All that work!
Remi said, “Louise, couldn’t you fill these thin places?” Like embroidering something?”
“With what?” asked Louise bitterly. “There won’t be any yarn left.”
Paul jumped to his feet. “I know!” he shouted. “Mother has a bagful of tiny pieces of yarn. All colors. She never throws anything away.”
“Wonderful,” said Louise, brightening up. “I could embroider all the thin places with colored yarn. Oh, Paul! Do you think your mother will let you have it?”
“I am going right home,” said Paul, “to work it out. See you tomorrow.”
That evening Paul set the table, wiped the dishes, took the garbage downstairs, all without being asked, and to top it all he went to bed without being told twice. When his mother came to say goodnight she said, “What’s on your mind?” Paul threw his arms around her neck and said, “How did you know?” and he asked her about the colored pieces of yarn. His mother said, “Those pieces of yarn are very precious nowadays, Paul. You cannot have them to play with.”
“I know,” said Paul emphatically. “But it’s for our gang, you know, The Gang of The-Cat-Who-Goes-Fishing. And we are making something. Something to buy a present for Zezette, who is sick.”
“So,” said his mother, smiling, “you are trying to barter setting the table, wiping the dishes, taking the garbage down, and going to bed at once, for my little pieces of colored yarn?”
“That’s it,” said Paul brightly. And as his mother remained silent, he added thoughtfully, “Perhaps that’s not enough. You do have to offer a lot to get a little. If you wish, I can do it tomorrow too and the day after, and the rest of the week, and the whole month and … and always. Forever.”
Mother stroked Paul’s hair gently. “Zezette is a nice girl, isn’t she? The gang is doing a good thing. You may have the pieces, only a little at a time every day as long as needed, provided that during that time you keep helping me. Is that a bargain?”
“Yes,” said Paul, putting his hand in his mother’s. Leaning back sleepily on his pillow, he yawned. “Mama, do you think it will take Louise an awfully long time to do the embroidery?”
And now it was Holy Week, and the sweater was finished. It was all dotted here and there with brightly colored flowers and birds. It was unique. Pretty. Beautiful. Remi had been appointed by the gang to go to the country and barter it for eggs. Remi was a Scout, and he had a bicycle. It was Thursday afternoon of Holy Week, and Remi was standing by his bicycle ready to start, and his father was saying, “Rather strange, this outing. And where are you supposed to sleep tonight, Remi?”
Remi said mildly, “On a farm, Papa.”
“Look here,” said Remi’s father, “no matter if you are a Scout, I don’t like your riding around alone on country roads at night. You are too young.”
“But, Papa, don’t you remember last year? I sneaked out alone at night to bring a message to the Resistance.”
Louise said, “Please, Papa, let him go. He will be all right. We are not like children of Before.”
Remi was riding down the road, his bike bumping continuously through holes. He had gotten out of Paris easily. There was practically no traffic at all, and now he was alone in the middle of the Montmorency Forest. Trees, trees, trees. No houses, no cars except an occasional jeep. As the sun went down, Remi felt his heart thumping more heavily. The sun disappeared before he was out of the forest. In order to save fuel, he would not light up his lantern. He rolled along alone in the quiet twilight. An owl hooted mournfully. A deer leaped across the road. A bat brushed past his hair. Remi gripped the handlebars and went on. He would make it. He would. At last the forest was behind him. Remi stopped and lit his lantern, then continued rolling along the slightly hilly road bordered with poplar trees. By ten o’clock, he decided he had better sleep somewhere. It was still too damp to sleep in the open, but half a mile or so from the road he saw a faint light. He turned onto a side lane and went toward it. He nearly broke his lantern when he bumped suddenly into a pile of rubbish. The farm had been bombed. Remi knocked at the heavy door, and a man’s voice asked gruffly, “Who’s there?”
“I’m looking for a place to sleep, please,” shouted Remi.
The door opened a crack and a storm lantern flashed in Remi’s face. “A kid!” said the man. “Come in.”
Remi went into a room crowded with all the stuff which had been saved from the bombing. He said, “Bonsoir, M’sieur, Dame.”
“Bonsoir,” said the man. “Park your bike there against the wall. You can sleep on the bench if you want to. There is nothing else.” He made a circular motion with his arm. “We have been bombed.”
“Yes, I see,” said Remi gravely. He looked at the man and the woman standing there. They were young people. They were sad.
Remi said, “It’s better if I say now that I can’t pay.”
“Pay for what?” asked the man.
“For sleeping here tonight.”
The man answered, “My idea is that you should not be running along the roads at night alone. But nowadays, children … it’s not like Before.”
“No, it’s not like Before,” echoed Remi quietly.
The woman went to the cupboard, took a piece of dark bread and a pitcher of milk, and set it on the table.
“Sit down,” she said. “And eat. As much as you want.”
“But,” said Remi, “the money…”
“Eat,” ordered the man. “The wife told you.”
Remi came toward the table. “My name is Remi Rennault,” he said.
The man replied, “Ours is Bonnet.” They shook hands and the three of them sat down. Remi ate and ate. He was very hungry. He ate the whole hunk of dark bread and drank the whole pitcher of milk. The man and the woman sat looking at him. The man asked how things were in Paris, and if there was enough food. “We cannot send anything to the city. No trucks. No trains. Nothing. Rich people manage to get something from the country. Some farmers are making a lot of money. I don’t mean us. We have been bombed. We have just one cow left and a few chickens … and,” he whispered, “our sorrow.”
“Have you a little sister?” asked the woman abruptly of Remi.
“No,” said Remi, “but there is Zezette. And it’s because of her that I am on the road. I am not on the road for any rich people. I know how it is. But I am here for Zezette.”
And he told them the whole story. Zezette’s sickness. The doctor’s advice. The Gang of The-Cat-Who-Goes- Fishing. The dust rag. The dye. The colored pieces of yarn. The sweater – the eggs. They listened quietly, with a funny expression in their eyes, as if they were about to weep.
“Let us see the sweater,” they said. Remi showed it to them.
“Never seen anything prettier,” said the woman. “And to think that it all came out of an old dust rag!”
“If you go on a little farther north tomorrow morning,” said the man, “there they have not been bombed, and you should be able to get a lot of food in exchange for this sweater.” Remi’s eyes sparkled.
“You’re a good kid,” said Madame Bonnet. “I dare say all of you in The Gang of The-Cat-Who-Goes-Fishing are good kids … like my little angel who is in heaven,” she added softly.
“Stretch out on the bench, Remi,” interrupted the man. “Bonsoir, mon gars.” He snuffed out the lamp.
When Remi awoke the next morning, he saw there was milk again on the table and another piece of dark bread. The sweater was spread on the table and next to it were two dozen eggs.
“Bonjour,” said Madame Bonnet. “Come and eat before you go.”
“Here are two dozen eggs for Zezette,” said Monsieur Bonnet.
“So do you like the sweater?” cried Remi.
“Mon petit gars,” said Monsieur Bonnet, “the sweater is worth much more than that. We cannot afford to barter for that sweater. We have been bombed. But here are two dozen eggs for Zezette.”
“But,” said Remi, “what can I give … I don’t understand.”
“The eggs, we give them to you. No money.” And seeing Remi’s puzzled expression, Monsieur Bonnet added, “We sort of would like to be honorary members of The Gang of The-Cat-Who-Goes-Fishing, see?”
“Listen, Remi,” broke in Madame Bonnet gently. “We had a Zezette too. Only her name was Chlotilde. She would be five years old now. Just like Zezette. She died in the war…”
Remi said quietly, “Ah, poor Monsieur and Madame Bonnet. It’s very sad. Zezette’s father died, my mother, and your little Chlotilde also. It is very sad.” They were silent.
“I guess I had better be going,” said Remi. He arranged the eggs carefully in the wire basket on his bike, wrapping them in newspapers he had brought with him. They stepped outside. The ruins of the farm looked sadder in the bright morning light.
Monsieur Bonnet said, “Turn left on the main road and go as far as the big crossroad. That’s about twenty miles from here. Then turn right and you will see a big prosperous farm. They have not been bombed out. You can barter the sweater, and be sure you get plenty for it.”
“Yes,” said Madame Bonnet. “Such a lovely thing, well knitted and all those lovely birds and flowers. Now watch that you don’t break the eggs … It will be two or three weeks before we have another dozen, won’t it?” she turned to her husband.
Monsieur Bonnet squared his shoulders and said, “Look here, Remi, I have not asked my wife, but I would like to let you have another two dozen in two or three weeks, for Zezette, if you can manage to come back.”
“Do what my husband says, Remi,” said Madame Bonnet evenly. “He is the boss.”
“I’ll come back. I’ll manage it.” He shook hands with them. “Au revoir, au revoir, Monsieur, au revoir, Madame.” He swung on his bike, turned around, and shouted, “And may the good God bless you and send you another child.”
Remi found the way just as Monsieur Bonnet had told him. And at the prosperous farm he bartered the sweater and got in exchange:
5 pounds of new potatoes
a heap of cornfield salad
1 pound of honey
2 pounds of butter
1 big fat chicken
Remi had a hard time cycling back to Paris. The basket was heavy, and he was holding the bag of apples and potatoes in his left hand, so he had only his right hand to direct the bike and steady himself over the bumps. He reached home after sundown on Good Friday, just as his father was coming in. Then, of course, everything had to be explained. Papa looked very suspicious, then very upset, then very happy. And he said, “Come and kiss me, and you too, Louise. Your mother would be proud of you.”
“But Papa,” said Louise, “It is not Remi and I only. It’s the gang, The Gang of The-Cat-Who-Goes-Fishing. I made the sweater from the dust rag; Jules got the dye; Paul got the colored pieces of yarn to embroider over the thin spots; and Remi bartered the sweater.”
“And what did Charles do?” asked Papa.
“He kept Zezette going,” said Louise.
“Yes, he did,” said Remi. “Kept her company every day. That was the hardest of all.”
“Well, well, well,” mused Papa. “And now there is all that food. What about having the whole gang here to eat it on Easter Sunday, Louise?”
And they did. The whole Gang of The-Cat-Who-Goes- Fishing was there – Louise, Remi, Paul, Charles, and Zezette, who got up especially for it. What an Easter it was! How they ate! Just like Before. Zezette was presented with the two dozen eggs from Monsieur and Madame Bonnet, and Remi had to say over and over again, “They said so. I can go back and get some more.”
Ah yes! It was a beautiful Easter last year.
And now another Easter is coming. Louise, Remi, Jules, Paul, Charles, and Zezette, who is well now, thanks to the eggs of Monsieur and Madame Bonnet: They are all sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens and looking at a piece of paper, a letter which is addressed to Remi and says:
To The Gang of The-Cat-Who-Goes-Fishing:
Monsieur and Madame Bonnet have the joy of announcing the birth of their daughter, CHLOTILDE-ZEZETTE-CHARLOTTE-LOUISE-MIMI- JULIA-PAULETTE BONNET