May is all about odds and ends, those strange little stories that sometimes pop into my head.
First up is flash fiction piece that takes place during WWII.
Her students collected so many potato bugs that Emilienne had to dash back to the vineyard for an extra wagon and a pram, all under the glare of a German soldier. The pram squeaked its protest, the wheels jolting along ruts while Henri’s words rang in her head:
Make it a game. Let the children have some fun.
So Emilienne handed each of her charges a jar and sent them into the potato fields under the hot Burgundy sun.
“Whoever collects the most wins a sweet!”
The children scampered through the fields, hands greedy for the tiny bugs. The damage was minimal—for now. But a blight was a blight, the potato crop at risk. As Henri put it:
Can’t deprive les Boches of their pommes frites, can we now?
Her students bent and plucked. One girl stumbled across the furrows, jar clutched to her chest in triumph.
“Mademoiselle! Look how many I’ve collected!”
The girl ran off with another jar but turned before resuming her spot in the field. “Will it be enough?”
Emilienne patted her skirt pocket, the one with the sweet. “We’ll see.”
She arranged the jars in the wagons, glass scraping against metal, sun baking the striped creatures inside. They crawled over each other, all in search of an opening that was no longer there.
So many bugs, and yet, she wondered. How many did the Germans expect them to collect? Would it be enough? How much was enough when it came to potato bugs?
In the end, she awarded the sweet to the industrious little girl. The child’s two older brothers lugged the wagons into town while Emilienne pushed the pram. The jars rocked and clattered, her strange, many-legged babies squirming. Sweat trickled down her spine, and a taste, like rusty grit, filled her mouth.
At the turn-in point, a lone soldier waited. He was no more than a boy, this German, this Nazi. In her head, she heard Henri:
Poor bastard probably has to count them all.
“What will you do with them?” Emilienne knew better than to start a conversation. She wasn’t a collaborator. And no matter how much her belly rumbled at night, she wouldn’t accept those kinds of favors.
Still, she wanted to know. As if the fate of these potato bugs mattered to her, to Burgundy, to the war.
“Drown them.” The boy grimaced as if he, personally, was responsible for the task.
Poor bastard, indeed.
In the end, she relinquished all but one jar. It was such a foolish thing to do, hiding it there beneath the pram’s tattered cushion. Would they line up a firing squad? Shoot her? Perhaps, but only after the Gestapo had their turn.
Tell me, Fraulein, why have you deprived the Reich of these potato bugs?
Yes, why had she? Emilienne couldn’t say. That didn’t stop her from gathering potato leaves from the field. That night, in the wine cellar, she stabbed the lid with an ice pick. She shoved handfuls of leaves into the jar and fed her hungry, many-legged babies.
That summer, whenever she overheard the Germans complain about the harvest, Emilienne thought of a jar, hidden in the wine cellar, and swallowed a smile.
It was enough.
This strange little story was first published in Pulp Literature, Issue 19. And yes, the Germans really did send French citizens into the potato fields during a blight to collect potato bugs.