The Letters Page, Vol 5, #5: For Billy Pilgrim

Never all that regular at the best of times, you may have noticed that we’ve been quiet of late. We’ve been distracted. But if this isn’t a time for sharing news and stories from elsewhere – to correspond across the echoing gaps that have lately sprung up between us – then, reader, when is? So here we bring you a letter from the South of France, written in a time when travelling around with the wind in one’s hair was an easy possibility, as perhaps it will be again. Soon, I hope, we will bring you letters from lock-downs across the world. How is it, dear reader, where you are? Write and tell us, and we’ll share what you have to tell. Our post-room is currently locked, so we’ll welcome your letters in the form of an email; simply reply to this email with ‘submission’ in the subject line. Feel free to include a picture of where you are right now. Each letter we publish will be rewarded with a gift subscription to one of our favourite small presses or literary journals.

Today’s letter comes from Jody Kennedy, a writer from the Midwest of the USA, currently living in Provence, France. She has published stories, essays and poems in Tin House OnlineElectric Review, and Georgia Review, amongst others. She has also published photography, and is currently working on a collection of essays. She’ll be receiving a year’s supply of books from the wonderful And Other Stories to distract her from that work.

The South of France in Spring
for Billy Pilgrim[1]

Dear Billy,

I think you’d probably like the South of France in spring when everything is still fresh and new (the almond trees are the first to bloom), before the summer heat (especially in late afternoon) brings the cicada’s incessant pooteeweet[2] (about mid-June), dries the grass to brittle stalk, turns the lavender fields a deep violet, and makes the Mediterranean Sea warm enough to finally comfortably swim in. I bet you’d think it’s more beautiful here than in Dresden this time of year but probably just about anywhere is more beautiful than Dresden was after those February bombings near the end of WWII.

Driving along the coast recently, past Martigues, Fos-sur-Mer, and not far from Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône (before hitching a ride on the Barcarin Ferry and crossing the Grand-Rhône into the Camargue), I got to thinking about how the corridor between Martigues and Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhone is a part of the south of France we rarely see highlighted on postcards or Instagram. The landscape is scattered with giant wind turbines (love and wink to Don Quixote), shipyards and factories burping out yellow-gray smoke, monstrous tanks holding gasoline, putrid air (depending on the breeze), and sometimes a plethora of roadside litter. There’s part of me that always wants to forget those ugly tracts; like you probably wanted to forget the charred bodies you were directed to gather up and dispose of after the Dresden bombings; like I can’t seem to forget the two horses (pulling a coffin-shaped green wagon) you and five other American prisoners conducted from a Dresden suburb to the slaughterhouse two days after the war ended.

The Camargue is really best visited in spring before the mosquitoes are too populous, the flamingos, egrets, and other various waterfowl still plentiful, and the Camargue horses aren’t yet worn out from the heavy influx of summer people and amateur riders. That day in the Camargue though, on an expansive, empty beach, my daughter tossed washed-up clams back into the sea and saved one tiny, silver fish. There were hoof prints trailing deep in the sand and I imagined the horses, their bristling coats freshly brushed, their nostrils flaring in the crisp morning air, their riders awake, vigilant, kind. Looking back in the direction of Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône, I noticed a thick, hazy yellow-gray layer of smog and thought of the men running the Barcarin Ferry and how they puffed on electric cigarettes in testosterone-laced stances. I thought of the clouds I’d been seeing lately too, clouds in the shapes of metallic spaceships, cloud forms I don’t recall ever seeing before, possibly created from the thinning ozone, the Dresden bombings or perhaps transported from the planet of Tralfamadore.[3]

I’ve never been to Dresden, Germany, but I have been to the Frankfurt airport a half dozen times with train or bus rides from there to Strasbourg, France (passing forever near Mannheim and Karlsruhe). I’ve set foot roughly three times on actual German soil after crossing the Rhine from Strasbourg into Kehl. Germany has always been a struggle despite my maternal bloodlines springing from there. There’s the wanting to sweep that fact under the rug. There’s the aversion to the language, the way it grates like a hastily tuned violin, recalls those dark, unholy days of WWII and the names leftover: Dresden (again), Nuremberg, Hamburg, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and all der Frauen and der Herren who turned the plow and followed Führer Hitler and the Nazi Party. All who went along enthusiastic, righteous, justified, drunk, and opiated further and further down the bunker hole. (Could they have done what they did without that cotton fluff, that liquid courage, that abominable cult of personality?) You might not find this agreeable but in researching Tralfamadore-like regions, I recently read that Hitler is trapped by his own volition in an in-between place in-between lives, twisted and tortured, and unable and unwilling to forgive himself for what he had done.

Spring came early to the South again this year. Some say these climate patterns are cyclical. I like to think that if there’s even a fraction of a doubt it’s wise to err on the side of caution, best to begin to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and others, but we’re up against our own laziness and wanting what we want when we want it (and for the lowest possible price). Why is it that we often seem to work against our own best interests? A friend of mine always says that if we destroy this planet we’ll just find another one the same way we found Earth after making a huge mess of things on Mars. (And I find that idea strangely comforting somehow.)

Not so long ago, a United States WWII bomb was located and detonated in the Main River in Frankfurt. It never mattered about Eve or Adam or the flora or fauna. It never mattered about the distance between the clouds and terra firma. The pilots were just following orders. They didn’t see you, Billy Pilgrim, or any of the others crouching above and below ground. If the pilots had refused the dictate they would likely have been court-marshaled, put on trial, found guilty, dishonorably discharged, sent to prison or even possibly, since it was a time of war, given the death penalty. In other words, they would have been fired. What would we have done in their situation? As we speak, the US, UK, and France are in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan with armed military drones, et cetera. And there is so much more. So it goes.[4]

The Judas and lilac trees are blooming in the South of France now along with the iris and wisteria. Buds are beginning to leaf out like they must have leafed out in Dresden not long after you realized that the horses pulling you and those five other American prisoners in that coffin-shaped green wagon through the moonlike ruins[5] were broken. I cried when you cried (you hadn’t cried at any other time during the war) on seeing how the horses cracked hooves had tracked hot ash, how their mouths were bone dry from thirst and bleeding from too-tight bits. (I still ache when I think of that.)

The other night, I had a dream that put me in mind of something the Tralfamadorians might have taught you. The dream went something like this: I was walking alone on a mountain road at dusk before coming to a narrow pass. The sky had just dumped bucketloads of rain and the cars and trucks whizzing by were spraying water all over the place. I wondered how I was going to get through the pass without being soaked and part of me wanted to turn back except I’d already come so far. Suddenly, I lifted up off the ground and was flying high above the twinkling lights of a distant city (maybe modern-day Dresden). And I was thinking that this is the way it’s supposed to be for us—with nobody hurt and nobody dying and in the end, we take a bow, the curtain drops, and we all walk off stage laughing. Yes, we all walk off stage laughing.

All of my love, Billy,

[1]    The main protagonist in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

[2]    Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. (Dell Publishing, 1991). 22. ll. 14.

[3]    The planet Billy Pilgrim visited in Slaughterhouse-Five.

[4]    Vonnegut. 2. ll. 2.

[5]    Vonnegut. 193-94. ll. 1-5.