“The Refugee”

This week’s weird tale is from a rather obscure writer.

Review: “The Refugee”, Jane Rice, 1943.

This weird story is more of a horror story with a common type of ending.

But it’s well done, amusing, and skillful example of its type.

Spoilers ahead since there’s no way to talk about this story meaningful without revealing the end.

This is a biter-bitten story in the most literal way

Milli Cushman is an American woman trapped as a refugee in France during World War II. It’s unclear if the city she lives in is Paris or someplace else. It seems to be the Nazi-occupied part of the country.  She is wealthy and regards her servant Maria, who is “almost no help at all”, as “Definitely a bourgeois” even though Milli comes from middle class stock herself. Her father, a butcher back in Pittsburgh, made a great deal of money by inventing some tool used in meat processing.

But then Milli, throughout the story, seems to be a pampered, unfeeling, and fatally naïve woman. She spends almost a quarter of this 15 page story just resenting her situation. It’s boring. There are no pink cocktails. The days of going to the café royale are gone. No long-stemmed roses anymore. No decent hairdressers are to be found.

And then there’s the question of men. No interesting ones can be found.

And then there’s the matter of food. Despite Milli seeming rather petty about the disappointments of her situation, Rice puts in some quick and subtle reminders that this is, after all, wartime. The city is described as now seedy, a “gaunt gray cat” which reminds Milli that “Cooked, a cat bore a striking resemblance to rabbit.”

That will be the first reference to food.

We hear, in this long buildup to the strangeness, that Milli is used to getting her way. When young, she played a game where she kept her eyes closed at dusk until the last street light was lit in exchange for a new doll or something else – presumably given to her by her father since her mother died without leaving Milli any memories of her.

Milli seems a rather selfish person. She doesn’t know exactly what her father invented to build the family fortune. Besides making her recite a bit of poetry, she mostly remembers him keeling over after choking on a gold filling at a clambake.

But Milli is confident that she knows the “right people” though that doesn’t do a whole lot of good in occupied France.

While she may not think of her father much, hunger has sharpened her memories of his butcher shop with its hanging cuts of meat. It’s hard not to think of them in a time where

an extra ration of tea of questionable ingredients, or a grisly chop of dubious origin, or a few eggs of doubtful age

are all that can be had.

Milli did have the foresight to lay in supplies of liqueur-filled chocolates which work very well as barter items when ration coupons won’t do.

Milli tries to keep up appearances. She dresses for dinner even if that means bathing in tepid water with inferior soap and curling her hair with a regular iron. Dinner is just limp salad and potatoes with the eyes gouged out.

There’s plenty of time to ponder the garden in the back of the house or the silver charm bracelet she treated herself to on the last Bastille Day.

And then, one day, she sees the man in her garden, a man – at least judging by his bare chest – of “excellent anatomy”.

It seems man-starved Milli is flushed with sexual excitement:

Instinctively, she opened her mouth to make some sort of an outcry. Whether she meant to call for aid, or to scare the interloper away, or merely to give vent to a belated exclamation of surprise, will forever be debatable for the object of her scrutiny chose that moment to turn his extraordinarily well-shaped head and his glance fixed on Milli. Milli’s outcry died a-borning.

The man is “perfectly beautiful”. Milli finds herself holding her head a little higher – to hide the “almost unnoticeable pouch” under her chin.

The man is so perfect he reminds Milli of a “young panther, or a half-awakened leopard”. His look almost mesmerizes her, and, as he moves out of the garden, Milli finds out he’s totally naked. She ponders that it’s a good thing the windows are locked – or maybe it’s a pity. His tawny eyes make “suet pudding of her knees”.

And then Maria comes into the room, and the man leaves the garden. Milli goes out to the garden and finds nothing. Maria asks what’s going on. Didn’t she see the man, asks Milli. No, says Maria, she’s got better things to do than look out the window.

Maria then goes off to visit Old Phillipe, a neighbor who’s sick and grieving the death of his son who was killed in the war.

Milli doesn’t mention the man further. Maria might be an informer who would report the man who might be a refugee, a beautiful refugee, a “stripling god” of less than 20.

Milli ponders the refugee over a meager dinner and when curling her hair and doing her usual “regulation number of backhanded slaps” beneath her chin.

Maria comes back and reports some animal was hanging around in the garden. She threw water on it which upsets Milli. Maria shows her the clawed prints in the garden, reports that she saw “great, gleaming, yellow eyes”.

At breakfast the next morning, Maria reports Phillipe is dead and “a bit mangled” and partially eaten. Maria blames the animal she saw the night before, and she thinks it was a wolf.

Milli is less than sympathetic:

After all, Milli thought, old Phillipe was better off. In all probability, he hadn’t suffered a great deal. Most likely he had died of shock first. One more, one less, what difference did it make. Especially when one was as old as Phillipe. At least he had lived his life while she, with so much life yet to be lived, was embalmed in a wretched sort of flypaper existence that adhered to every inch of her no matter how hard she pulled.

She just has more of the day to look forward to, more bad meals. She’s even running out of perfume.

And then, that afternoon, she sees the refugee again.

She sends Maria to visit the relatives of Phillipe, grabs a pair of pants in the house, and goes out to meet him.

She almost things he’s going to spring at her, but she’s satisfied the man seems to be inventorying her physical charms.

What follows is two pages of innuendo in which the man all but comes out and says he’s a werewolf. He even says his name is Lupus. Milli even invites him to sleep in the house that day. He agrees – after pinching her the way

her father used to give chickens to see if they were filled out in the proper places.

It’s at this point we think Milli is not only very self-centered but very naïve. This will not end well.

And Milli seems besotted with Lupus. She tells him to sleep. She’s even prepares her own dinner of muffins and a salad.

Lupus suggests they watch the sunset. She primps her hair. Lupus says she’s a real sight, and he won’t be waiting long.

To celebrate the moment, Milli offers him one of her chocolates. Lupus declines, so Milli strokes his head like she’s petting a dog and drops the chocolate into his mouth.

And Lupus, who ingested a silver charm in that chocolate, transforms into a wolf. Milli jabs him with a hairpin to make sure he gulps the chocolate down.

And then Milli eats him.

The story ends with:

Milli wiped her mouth daintily with a napkin. How divinely full she was. And with Maria gone she could have Lupus all to herself.

Down to the last, delicious morsel.

Milli is self-centered. She may be, as hinted by her name, used to a soft life. But she’s not soft, and she’s not stupid.

Not a great weird story, and it wouldn’t hold up to repeated readings once you know the joke, but it’s worth a look.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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