There are many things he doesn’t understand about her, but in the beginning, the most confusing is her insistence that she sleep on the ground. As soon as Gilbert opens the door to her room, the bundle on the floor jerks, and she stares at him through mussed hair and blankets. Completely awake.
“…good morning,” he says.
Violet doesn’t respond. Her gaze is like a knife. The floorboards creak as he shifts his weight from leg to leg, and she fixes her eyes on his boots, and he stops. He clears his throat.
“Are you hungry?” he asks.
No response. He rubs his stomach indicatively, mimics scooping food into his mouth, chews the air with exaggeration.
“Mmm,” he tries. “Food. Do you want food?”
She is just looking at his stomach, now. Following the circling motion of his hand. He grimaces.
“Come downstairs,” he tells her finally, and she scrambles to her feet. Her boots — which she is already wearing — didn’t she take them off to sleep? …Her boots scuff the floor and despite the heavy rubber soles she is so silent when she follows him that he glances back at her to make sure she’s still there.
“You know, it’s alright to sleep on the bed,” he tells her, when she finally makes her way to the table and begins eating, with her hands, the plain pancake he gave her. She eyes him. Between her chews she scans the room. Left, right, chew. Left, right, chew. The maid arrives with another batch of pancakes and notices her eating them without embellishment and says, “Oh, is this syrup not to your taste? Would you like me to bring out something else? We also have jams, fresh fruit, cream…”
“This is sufficient, thank you,” Gilbert answers after a long silence. The maid smiles and leaves. Violet pushes the last bit of pancake into her mouth and then just sits there, watching Gilbert reach for a bowl of chopped fruit.
“Would you like this?” Gilbert asks. “An apple?” He attempts a warm smile, waves an apple slice. Her eyes follow it. Left, right.
“There’s a lot of food, Violet,” he tells her, just in case it isn’t yet completely clear. “Please eat as much as you like.”
In the end, she doesn’t eat anything more until he puts it on her plate himself, but once he does — tumbling over fruit and pancakes and fried egg and slices of bacon — he is pleased with how she makes steady work of everything. She is on her sixth pancake when he realizes with panic that she isn’t likely to tell him when she’s had enough. He stops, and she stops. Waiting.
“Are you full?” he asks.
She nods. She is, Gilbert realizes, holding her stomach.
“You need to eat,” Gilbert tells her, feeling, for the first time, a little helpless. “But you also need to tell me if you are full. Does…does that make sense? It’s an order,” he says, with inspiration followed immediately by a stab of guilt.
Her eyes light.
“Understood,” she says.
Her unfamiliarity with food, even her intense moderation of it, is something that he can understand, something that he can imagine being shaped by her experiences (though he’d rather not imagine those too clearly). And, certainly, the ability to sleep without issue on flat ground is something that doesn’t come easily to everyone. On the field these and other skills she seems to have had from birth are basic and necessary; he doesn’t even think of them.
But for the first time, Gilbert finds himself staying awake, and staring at the ceiling, knowing that she’s taken her blanket to the floor again, and left even the pillow on her mattress. It occurs to him that he doesn’t know exactly how many years the war has gone on. Long enough that there are children like her, that have never known anything else, whose lives are primed for this and only this kind of existence. But…
What about when the war is over?
There isn’t much time to teach Violet how to survive outside of battle, but he does his best between their deployments. Though it’s clear she prefers his old hand-me-downs, he has the maid find other clothing for her to try, blouses and dresses and hats. (He presents these to her hopefully, and then, sheepishly, asks the maid to teach her how to put them on.) There’s the reading, and the writing, which she picks up eagerly when he teaches her. Sometimes they don’t have much time for anything except for him to share stories of things it’s clear she’s never seen: schools, bookstores, parades, lush and vast markets, peaceful parks, city views.
For good measure he also talks at length about how comfortable it is to sleep on a bed, on a plush mattress with such nice sheets, a simple luxury especially after nights of knobby tree roots and jagged stones. She takes it all in, contemplatively.
The progress is slow, but it is progress. One day her report contains, alongside her usual observation of the weather and battle strategy musing, a description of her namesake flower, and the butterfly she saw gently fluttering around it. One day he spots her gazing at a map, tracing and sounding out city names until she finds Leiden. One day she carefully dollops cream and slices of strawberries onto her pancakes. And one day, after he yawns and notes aloud how much he’s looking forward to going to sleep in his own bed, Violet looks up at him.
“Is it really…that nice,” she asks.
“Yes,” Gilbert says, trying to suppress his enthusiasm. “Of course. You should try it. Absolutely.”
“Understood,” she says.
That evening, when he goes upstairs, the light is already off in her room. Gilbert sighs with some relief, and continues on, and suspects nothing until he is already in bed himself. There’s enough tea and lantern oil left for him to get through today’s reports, and he settles in, arranging them on his lap. Then, there’s a quiet knock.
“Yes?” he calls. The door opens, so silently that he knows it can only be one person.
“Violet,” he says, sitting up. “What’s the matter? Are you alright?”
“Yes,” she says. “I’m fine.” She is still wearing her shirt and overalls from the day, and also is carrying her blanket. She walks forward, purposefully, and then, before he can understand what it is she’s doing, she dumps everything on the foot of his bed. He watches, incredulous, as she piles herself on top of it, and curls up.
“Violet,” he says, in disbelief. Her head jerks toward him.
“That’s not…” He trails off. Her expression is as usual, but by now, he knows how to read her. Her eyes dart, with confusion, with sudden apprehension. Her body is stiff. She grips the blanket, knuckles paling.
“…that’s not how you sleep on a bed,” he finishes. “You rest your head on a pillow.”
“Pillow,” she repeats.
“This,” he says. He picks up one of the pillows at the head of his own bed, the one he hasn’t propped up against his back, and lifts it, and leans his head against it indicatively. Then he sets it down, and pats it, emphatic.
“Now go and —“ Get your own pillow, he wants to say, but, perhaps sensing her mistake and eager to make up for it, Violet lunges. She sets her head on the pillow, exactly where he patted it. She kicks the blanket up and swathes herself. She checks that she’s covered, and then checks the pillow, and centers her head more precisely onto it. Then she gazes up at him. Waiting.
“…is it comfortable?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says, after taking a moment to evaluate it. “It is. I like it.”
“Good.” He feels himself softening. “But, listen. I need to stay up a little longer. So why don’t you return to the bed in your room? You’ll be able to sleep better there, without the light.”
“I think,” Violet says, “I’ll sleep better here, Major.”
Her gaze drops. He waits, and then sighs.
“Nevermind,” he says. Now that he thinks about it, maybe she doesn’t know the word yet, for loneliness. He opens his mouth to teach it to her, and then closes it. It’s fine, for tonight.
“Goodnight, Violet,” he says instead.
“Goodnight.” She works the word around her mouth like a new food. “Major.”
She falls asleep quickly. He glances over at her, and feels unsettled, and it takes him a while to understand why. It is, he realizes belatedly, the first time he’s looked at her and not seen her looking back at him, watching his every move.
He adjusts the blanket more fully around her, and gathers his papers, and stands, carefully enough that the bed won’t make any noise to wake her.
Downstairs, he smiles to himself as he arranges the papers on the table. When the war is over, perhaps her expression will be that peaceful all the time. He looks forward to seeing it.