Getting out of a
Warm Bed on a
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Orconte is a village on the outskirts of Saint-Dizier where my Group was stationed during the bitterly cold winter of '39. I was billeted in a clay-walled peasant house. The temperature would drop during the night low enough to freeze the water in my rustic crock, and the first thing I did in the morning was of course to light a fire. But to do that I had to get out of a bed in which I lay snug and warm and happy.
Nothing seemed to me more miraculous than that simple bed in that bare and freezing chamber. It was there that I revelled in the bliss of relaxation after the exhaustion of the day's work. I felt safe in that bed. No danger could reach me there. During the day [as a fighter pilot] I was exposed to the rigor of the upper altitudes and the risk of the peremptory machine guns. During the day my body was available for transformation into a lair of agony and undeserved laceration. During the day my body was not mine. Was no longer mine. Any of its members might at any moment be commandeered; its blood might at any moment be drawn off without my acquiescence. For it is another consequence of war that the soldier's body becomes a stock of accessories that are no longer his property.
The bailiff arrives and demands a pair of eyes --- you yield up the gift of sight. The bailiff arrives and demands a pair of legs --- you yield up the gift of movement. The bailiff arrives torch in hand and demands the flesh off your face --- and you, having yielded up the gift of smiling and manifesting your friendship for your kind, become a monster. Thus this body, which during any daylight hour might reveal itself my enemy and do me ill, might transform itself into a generator of whimperings, was still my obedient and comradely friend as it snuggled under the eiderdown in its demi-slumber, murmuring to my consciousness no more than its gratification and its purring bliss. Yet this body had to be withdrawn from beneath that eiderdown; it had to be washed in freezing water, shaved, dressed, made respectable before presenting itself to the bursts of steel. And getting out of bed was like a return to infancy, like being torn away from the maternal arms, the maternal breast, from everything that cherishes, caresses, shelters the existence of the infant.
So, having pondered and meditated and put off my decision as long as I could, I would grit my teeth and spring in a single leap to the fireplace, drench the logs with kerosene, and touch a match to them. Then, when the oil had flared up, and I had succeeded in crossing back to my bed, I would snuggle down again in its grateful warmth. With blankets and eiderdown drawn up to my left eye, I would watch the fireplace. At first the logs would seem not to catch, and only occasional flashes would flicker on the ceiling. But soon the fire would settle down in the hearth as if to organize a celebration. There would come a crackling, a roaring, a singing, and the fire would be as merry as a village wedding feast when the guests have begun to drink, to warm up, to nudge one another in the ribs.
Now and then it would seem to me that my good-tempered fire was standing guard over me like a particularly brisk and faithful shepherd dog going diligently about his work. A feeling of quiet jubilation would go through me as I watched it. And when the merry-making was at its height, when the shadows were dancing on the ceiling, when the warm golden music filled the air and the glowing logs had become a rosy architecture; when my room was quite redolent of the magic odor of smoke and resin, I would leap again from one friend to the other, from my bed to my fire; and standing there beside the more generous friend, I could never say whether I was in truth toasting my belly or warming my heart at that fireplace. Faced by two temptations, I like a coward had given way to the stronger, the ruddier, the one which, with its fanfare and flutter, had advertised its wares more cleverly.
Thus three times --- first to light my fire, then to get back into bed, then again to harvest my crop of flames-three times with chattering teeth I had crossed the bare and frozen tundra of my chamber and known what it was to explore the polar regions. I had made my way on foot across a desert to arrive at a blessed haven, and my effort had been rewarded by that fire which in my presence, for my sake, had danced its jubilant air.
Very likely my story seems to you pointless, and yet this was a great adventure. My chamber had shown me as in a glass something I should never have discovered had I happened in by chance on this peasant house. What, as tourist, I should have seen would have been a bare and commonplace room, a vague bed, a water pitcher, an ugly chimney-piece. I should have yawned and turned away. Of its three provinces, its three civilizations --- the one of sleep, the other of fire, the third of desert --- I should have known nothing, nor been able to distinguish between them. How should I possibly have guessed the adventure of the body --- first as infant clinging to the tenderness and the shelter of the maternal breast, then as soldier made for suffering, and finally as man enriched by the delight of the civilization of fire --- fire, the magnetic pole of the tribe, that honors me and will do honor to my comrades who, when they come to see me if I get back, will take part in this festivity, will draw up their chairs round mine, and while we talk of our problems, our worries, our drudgery, will nevertheless say as they rub their hands and stuff their pipes, "There's no getting round it, a fire does make you feel fine."
---from Flight to Arras
©1942, Reynal & Hitchcock