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Memory of the Night of the 4th:

Memory of the Night of the 4th
Victor Hugo
translated by Geoffrey Barto

The child had received two bullets to the head.
The home was tidy, humble, peaceable, respectable;
There was a blessed branch above a portrait.
The grandmother was there, weeping.
We undressed him in silence. His mouth,
Pale, opened; death filled his shy eyes;
His arms hung limp, in need of support.
In his pocket he had a wooden top.
You could put a whole finger in the holes left by the bullets.
Have you seen the blackberries bleeding on the bush?
His skull was cracked open like a tree split by lightning
The grandmother watched us undress the boy,
Saying: "How pale he is! Bring the lamp closer.
God! His hair is glued to his temple."
After this, she then took him on her knees.
The night was dismal; you could still hear the shots
Fired in the streets where still more were being killed.
"We must enshroud him," one of us said.
A white sheet was taken from the linen closet.
But the old lady now approached us, coming from the hearth,
As though she might warm his already stiffened limbs.
Alas! What death's cold hand has touched
Can never again be warmed at the hearths found here below.
She leaned forward and drew off his stockings,
And took the feet of the cadavre in her small hands.
"Could things be more horrible?"
She cried, "Good sir, he wasn't yet eight!
"He went to school; his teachers were happy with him.
"When I had a letter to write
"He was the one who wrote it. So they're
"Killing children now? My God!
"So they're all brigands now. I ask you, sir -
"He was playing just outside the window this morning -
"Tell me why they killed this poor little guy of mine!
"He was walking down the street and they shot him.
"Sir, he was as good and sweet as Jesus himself.
"I'm old; I'll soon be gone anyway
"What would it have been to Bonaparte
"If they'd killed me instead of him?"
She stopped, unable to keep from sobbing,
Then said - and at this we all burst into tears -
"What's to become of me, now all alone?
"Tell me that, you who are here today.
"Alas, he was all I had left of his mother.
"Why'd they kill him, someone tell me.
"He didn't shout, 'Long live the Republic!'"
We all held silent, standing grave, hats lowered,
Trembling before inconsolable grief.

You wouldn't understand politics, ma'am.
Mr. Napoleon - that is his true name,
Is poor though a prince; he likes his palaces;
He needs his horses, his valets,
Money for his gaming, his household,
His hunts; but you see, he's saving
Family, the Church, Society;
He needs St. Cloud, so full of roses in the summer,
Where prefects and mayors can come admire him;
And that, madame, is why old grandmothers,
Their poor withered hands trembling with cold,
Must stitch shut the shrouds of seven year olds.

Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2002

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