This is what happened to les deux bretons before I met them, back in the 70s when they were boys in Vannes. One was abandoned at nineteen months (no one knows why, or by whom), the other orphaned by a car wreck at age three. I should say he was orphaned in a car wreck, strapped to a safety seat in the car in question. The fact of the child safety seat indicates the degree of his late parents’ love for him; baby seats were indulgences in 1971. He was brought to the same agency as the foundling, where someone had the kindness to put them together in the same bassinet. Or—it might just as easily be said—someone made the mistake of placing them together.
The fair boy was registered under the unlikely name of Charlemagne Kermorgant, the dark one attached to the much less remarkable Florent Edig. Florent remembers the occasion of their meeting, just as he remembers the car wreck that erased his alternate life. He sees, when he tries, a characterless room, a lurking nurse, a dreary olive drape, and a toddler with matted white hair crawling up to peer at his eyes. A scent, one part applesauce, one part diaper. Children’s squeaks and squalls. A pain in his left leg and another on the right side of his head. A rather stunning absence, quickly filled.
Charlemagne was so named by at least one of his derelict parents. The name was inscribed on a note taped to his wrist. There was no family name, of course, so Kermorgant became his surname, as it became the surname of all the ciphers left on the steps of the eponymous hospice. An interim label, it stuck to him through to the age of majority and sticks to him still.
Being younger and very blond, and possessed of magnanimous blue eyes that flattered the standards of time and place, he might have found replacement parents soon enough. But les deux bretons were freakishly canny and made themselves loathsome during viewings with nose-picks and worse. Prospective adopters turned from him with regret and left him bent under Florent’s arm. Wards of the state, they forged a family from their separate parts. They were each other’s reassurance, even then.
They came of age together in their blue-and-white world in Vannes, sipped in sea air, and wet their heads each summer in theGulf of Morbihan. They wrote themselves a history of first shaves and first tattoos, of afterschool lessons in Breton and savate, of footsteps salting cobbled streets as the sea breeze salted roofs, of Florent’s vigilance, of Charlemagne’s restlessness that sent him bouncing off the world’s surfaces as they raced through streetlets that mapped their trail between school and foster home.
Yes, a foster home. Together. Well, eventually, once the state accepted that Charlemagne and Florent were easier to deal with as a set than as units. Such had been their design. On the surface, it was Charlemagne who seemed to be more wilful when separate routines or separate towns were proposed as options. His will was a symptom of his dynamism, staff believed, and the trouble he caused was manifest. It involved piercing sounds and cracked objects and a taut, troublesome body not easily restrained. Florent was thought to be the agreeable one. His will was latent, rarely tapped. It was dangerously undisclosed. Charlemagne’s will tested patience, it’s true, but Florent’s ended up shaping the world.
It did so three times, each time bureaucrats tried to separate them. The first severing occurred when Charlemagne was four and Florent five. You must understand that Charlemagne shimmered, his fair hair blossoming around his narrow face, while Florent’s dark hair draped across his narrow own and obscured his odd irises—one brown, one hazel—that disarmed strangers. So it was that Charlemagne, through contrast, drew the most attention, and the inevitable finally happened one summer. A local couple merely laughed, charmed, at the blond boy’s less than charming efforts to dissuade them. They signed several packs of paper and took him home.
They smoothed his hair and dressed him brightly, gave him a bedroom of his own and made him a nest of toys. They painted a romping zoo on the walls of his room and pointed out the smiling elephant, the jigging civet. There was an embryonic love for him in that house on Rue des Salines, and better meals, and bigger windows, and lusher hedges, and Epoisses, and the promise of classmates and cousins and, perhaps one day, a proper brother or sister.
Charlemagne saw his new walls through a sheen of tears. He coughed at the tender man and woman who tried to help him adapt. He slumped on the floor of his bedroom and did nothing but cry, said nothing but a name. “Flor!” he yelled at the nearest wall, unimpressed by the happy elephant. “Flor!” until his face was red. “Flor!” until he vomited—not much of a conqueror then. He snotted the hem of his shirt and let his stomach grow empty. He resisted all embraces, twisting like a screw whenever the woman drew him to her, and when the bedroom door was closed on him, he “Flor!”ed until he was hoarse. He “Flor!”ed in a northward direction even after his voice gave out, after his new parents began to reconsider their choice.
From the north Florent came. He disappeared from the agency seven hours after Charlemagne was removed and reappeared on Rue des Salines two days later. There were reports, after the fact, of a slight, odd-eyed child padding barefoot through the streets of Vannes, evading traffic and random malevolence as if girded by a sphere. He didn’t drown in the long neck of the oily La Marie, or lose composure in hectic, honking Place Gambetta as he wandered all the way up Rue Ferdinand le Dressay and all the way down Avenue du Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny. He wasn’t tempted by Vannes’ quaint and sunny quays and their nodding yachts. He must be a very sensible child, authorities surmised, and he must have had a franc or two to buy a snack, a cup of juice. He must have found a nook to shelter in when night fell—he must be very quick to have evaded seeking, well-meaning hands.
But no one solved the question of how Florent knew where to find his anointed brother, how he entered the second-floor bedroom of a locked house in the dead of night, to be found tucked against the other’s side, his feet as clean as seashell. Kermorgant staff were shame-faced, police were relieved, and Charlemagne’s futile new parents were traumatized. They returned him to the agency along with the runaway, unwilling to take responsibility for a broken child and his formidable shadow.
Charlemagne was hardly broken. Reunited with Florent, his voice returned with his appetite, and his will abated. Florent grew agreeable again, the most helpful, pliable boy in the hospice. He was tacit, but since his grades were triumphantly average, adults let him be. They accepted his dial tone of a personality, and they checked Charlemagne’s energy more days than not, but neither boy earned a tick in their file as routine carried them forward. They were good. The one was simply too quiet, the other a bit kinetic.
It was commonplace for children to walk themselves to class in the 70s, particularly in seaside towns where orphanages weren’t more than five quiet turns of the street from primary schools. Les deux bretons were clannish, ignoring the other Kermorgant boys and girls without rudeness. They curled through the streets alone most days, the one indifferent to everything but his friend, the other beating with curiosity. Even then—even at six—Charlemagne tested every wall with hands, feet, and shoulders, sensing the latent physical intelligence he’d someday use to somersault off buildings with showy kips and flyaways.
But that was a year or two down the line. Now was the age of alphabet and arithmetic, of learning how to spell first and last names no matter how elaborate, of evading larger boys who taunted one with Charle-minime and the other with Fleur. If the bullies were persistent, the classroom dull, the institutional life they lived completely without character, the whole was preferable to the alternative, which arrived soon enough—inevitable.
Lesson learned after the Rue des Salines incident, the bureaucrats worked on their timing. They orchestrated a double-drop on the same day once every file was in order. Florent, age seven, was shipped to a foster home in Caen, while six-year-old Charlemagne was brought, indignant, to the tip of Quiberon. Each was instructed to adapt to new circles. Neither was told where the other could be found.
Charlemagne’s second home lacked the first one’s heart. The man and woman who sheltered him on Quiberon understood the arrangement to be temporary and offish. There were two other foster children under this roof—both girls, neither of whom had much to do with the newcomer. A clinical atmosphere was contained in that gabled house with turquoise shutters and trim—a house like any other off Avenue du Presqu’île, taking part in a peninsula-long repetition of whitewashed squares behind stony fences. Everything seemed to point south, towards colorful Port Maria, which was iced with winter’s frozen spray. Everything seemed to remark on the expansive seaside sky.
Charlemagne had nothing to say about any of it. He drew inward and sulked. His fosterers maintained routine. The husband left each morning to attend to his seafood restaurant, however void of tourists. The wife sorted the girls off to school. Charlemagne was left alone while he adjusted to the change—no chores, no school, no chaffing. He took advantage of his fosterers’ philosophy and spent his days ignoring platefuls of sardines and sweetened fromage blanc, whispering a syllable. He waited, confident, and studied the maritime tchotchkes his foster mother cluttered about the maritime-blue dining room.
This time it took a week and a day for Florent to materialize, so great the distance between them and so hard the weather. His feet tinged red, his toes puckered, he wandered naked into the house one morning, locked onto the dining room where Charlemagne practiced inertia, and closed the gap.
The wife rolled him in a blanket and called the husband back from the restaurant while Florent dozed in a corner with his friend. Only next gardening season would she discover an assortment of clothes bundled under the hedge that separated her gabled house from that of the neighbor: a dark green winter coat, a pair of black trousers, brown lace-up boots, gloves, a knitted cap, a scarf, and several layers of shirts. Everything was out of fashion and threadbare, as if rescued from a charity bin, and everything was fit for a grown man. There were two francs and twenty centimes in the pocket of the trousers, a clipped fingernail, and nothing else.
Authorities tried to trace the passage of an odd-eyed, determined child from Caen to Quiberon, but their efforts were in vain. They asked the wrong questions. Had they inquired about an odd-eyed adult roving across Brittany, they might have heard reports of such a man hiking southwards along a wintery causeway, hunched against the latest gale. Around him the swells tried to climb the seawall, made violent by the pressure of a heavy sunless sky that digested every shade of grey. The sea itself refused, momentarily, to mirror the happy blues of the province; it boiled with lurid turquoise, threw up its foam, sent wind shrieking into ears, and guttled the icy snow that lanced it.
The weather was remarkable that week, and so was the man who defied it, not just because he chose to walk the Quiberon peninsula in February. He’d been noticeably down on his luck, his clothes too large for his frame yet too short at the wrists and ankles. He’d been noticeably shivering, his coat and pants sopped by flying snow and foam. He’d been heterochromic like Edig, and narrow-built like Edig, and dark-locked like Edig, and heedless of the faces peering at him through car windows. He’d been tattered but tireless as he pushed southward against the wind.
In less than a day les deux bretons were back at the hospice, victorious. The boys attached themselves to old walls, old beds, old chores. Florent, after harrowing authorities from Caen to Quiberon for the span of a week and a day, resumed his role as Most Cooperative Boy. Charlemagne resumed his energetic thrumming. The one was boring, the other endearing despite it all. They were good again.
It was not commonplace for children in Vannes to enlist in martial arts classes, much less wards of the state who earned no more than the basics. It was, however, not unusual for business people to donate goods or services to l’Hospice Kermorgant. The Christmas after the Avenue du Presqu’île incident, when Charlemagne was seven and Florent eight, a local savate club offered free lessons to the lucky child (and a companion of his choice) who selected a certain gift under the institutional tree. Charlemagne, too small to grapple larger boxes out of the fray, clamped his hand on a book-sized present that revealed a manual of basic fighting techniques and a voucher.
Now was the age of fouettes and chasses bas, of learning to make weapons of hands, feet, and canes, of bullies growing reluctant to approach Charlemagne Kermorgant and Florent Edig. They were not yet known as les deux bretons, who in their teens and twenties would take several national titles between them in three different martial arts (one shod, two barefoot), but they were in development. Their instructor was so taken with nimble Char and Flor, so optimistic about their aptitude and form, that free lessons continued in exchange for helping out at the club.
One last time the state tried to accommodate these wards beyond the institution. There was a brief attempt to locate fosterers who would house both boys, but boys of an age were thought to be troublesome and there were no takers. A code of silence was put into place—a need-to-know venture whose details were kept in the heads of two bureaucrats, no more. Charlemagne was assigned a home in Brest, Florent in Rennes, and once again—after signatures were collected and relocation dates confirmed—les deux bretons were scattered. It took moments to collect them from their classrooms and wrangle them into separate vans. At just seven and eight years old, and just months into their savate training, they were hardly indomitable.
Charlemagne found himself lost in the largest town he’d ever seen, bolted to a naval couple who lived near the port. The husband was rarely out of uniform, and the wife—unable to have children of her own—was intrusive. Charlemagne was their first foster and their attention was a spotlight he couldn’t elude. He was their practice son while they waited for a baby to adopt, and practice they did: family meals and family games exhausted him and he acted out. He broke a cup for the sake of breaking it and sampled every hiding spot he could find in the couple’s button-tight home on Rue Bel air. He refused to speak and made a drama of baths and meals. He wanted his savate instructor nearly as much as he wanted Flor. He had never felt so robbed.
Florent, lost in a city even larger than Brest, was some time in finding his friend. Time enough for spring to show itself. Time enough for incessant rain to darken the already dark street and thicken its hedges and wash winter salt from the sides of its homes. Time enough for Charlemagne to lose pounds he couldn’t afford to lose, for the husband to lose patience and introduce boy to palm, for the wife to lose interest in the entire exercise. Time enough for Charlemagne, obsessed with all things east, to scent his way to the edge of land and call at the sea until he was dragged away.
No one saw Florent enter the house on Rue Bel air, though it happened in the middle of a Saturday, when husband and wife were home with their maddening charge. They were at lunch—and then they were asleep. They dreamt, in that sleep, of colossal iron walls and green-and-brown mountains, of planets that could crush a sun, of booms that strip reason from minds. They dreamt of particles too small to be measured—to be known—which combined into ribbons that were spotlessly bright yet crimson-dark in the very same moment in time. They dreamt of things indefinite, interactive, and unobservable. They dreamt of a dogged and ceaseless spinning, and woke unnerved.
When they woke, lifting heads from tabletop, their faces stained with cotriade, Charlemagne was camped under the highboy with a dark-haired child. The one was wary as he blinked at the adults at the table, the other nodding off. The one looked immensely satisfied, the other bedraggled, shoes disintegrating off trembling feet.
Authorities never minded the question of Charlemagne and Florent, at first. They had larger mysteries to solve. Ten days before, a sleeping sickness descended on Rennes. So chaotic the result, no one had time to follow up reports about an odd-eyed runaway who dodged his fosterers in a Picard Surgelés and wasn’t spotted again until he turned up in Brest. If anyone connected the bolting of Edig from the foodshop and the first mass case of sleeping sickness—which occurred in the shop in question—such a connection never made it to the papers. Journalists were too busy tracing the sickness westward, marvelling how it contained itself, threadlike, to less than a square kilometer radius, how it veered away from roads and towns. That was just as well, after the smashed glass and broken limbs that collected in Rennes as drivers, builders, cooks, and bathers dropped off in media res with sometimes dire results.
Events were much gentler beyond the capital. Victims tended to be innkeepers, hikers, dalliers. Rural families fell asleep without warning, at all hours, to wake on sofas or kitchen floors, food missing from fridges and pantries. A few outdoor cafés reported collective naps that overturned cups, tables, and chairs, but these were remote operations nestled in the Armorique Regional National Park. One lucky photographer benefitted from the phenomenon when she managed to wake before the others and snap a lucrative shot: patrons sagging on chairs, waiters supine on the ground, trays scattered, éclairs and kouigns transformed into pillows.
The naval man and his wife were the last of the sleepers; the sickness waned at Brest. Les deux bretons were returned to Vannes and given old spots and old roles at the hospice. They returned to school and savate lessons, and they agreed to sign up for instruction in Breton to earn more credit with the adults who ruled them. Charlemagne was once more amenable to food and baths. Florent made himself indispensable. They were so good—and so quick to win trophies for their local club—that their savate instructor and his wife opened their home to both boys less than a year later, and there they remained.
In time, they grew into lithe young men with charming faces that belied their love of the ring. In time, as they qualified for tournaments in Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse, they became known as les deux bretons, a label of respect, of expectation. It was expected that Kermorgant would disarm opponents with a joyous, bloody grin—he’d bite his tongue to dye his teeth when bouts were close. It was expected he would let his hair hang in his face while Edig pulled his into a ball so he might cut the air with his cheekbones and bore into opponents with his eerie two-tone gaze. It was expected they would eventually settle in Paris, a city of many bouts and clubs, where the one would make a modest living in restaurant kitchens (his kineticism served him well), the other as a martial arts instructor of equally modest means. It was expected that gaining the age of majority would liberate them, and it did, and they are together still, terrifying enemies with their less terrifying trick. If they miss the sea air, they’ve chosen not to tell me.