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that one may eat and not die

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It was still dark as the young man whose name was Jean Valjean made his way out of the village, trudging through the snow, eyes straight ahead on the road leading to the cottage, a rag bundle cradled in his arms as carefully as if it were a newborn child. His stomach was growling, and he did not trust himself to pause.

His hand was still smarting under the bandages, but he'd forgotten about it during the hours he'd worked with Monsieur Isabeau. The novelty of the work, the hunger which made him almost nauseous, and, above all, his constant stupefaction at the situation had left no room for any self-indulgent thoughts of petty pain. And what was any of it compared to the stories he had heard about the things that happened to robbers?

He trembled at the thought. A robber, a thief in the night -- what would his parents have said? What would his sister say? And yet, by some amazing twist of fate the baker had not called for the police, had not demanded he be taken away in chains. Instead he had been offered the chance to make up for his mistake. He had been offered trust.

His arms tightened around the bundle. He had been offered life.

Life for himself, and, more importantly, for Jeanne and her seven small children, who had done nothing wrong. If he had been taken away, if Monsieur Isabeau had called for the police... What would have become of them? What way would that have been to pay her back, the sister who had brought him up, what way to return their trust, the little ones who depended on him for their living?

Last night, he had woken up from a dream which he could no longer remember, gasping for breath and shaking all over, his heart racing in his throat. For several long moments he had not known where he was, staring into the unfamiliar darkness, the heat of the oven at his back -- and then he had remembered, slumping down in equal measures of relief and shame, tears prickling at his eyes.

It had taken him some time to fall asleep again. Not until one of the baker's cats sidled up to him in the darkness, curling against his belly with easy confidence, had he been able to relax, huddled on the floor in the darkness, slowly stroking the creature's soft back as his breathing slowed down.

When Monsieur Isabeau had woken him up the cat was gone, the morning was at its coldest and his stomach was clenching from lack of food. Then there had been little time to think of anything but the work, little time to do anything but prove himself willing and able to make amends, to follow as best he could, use his hands and his wits as best he could: heave and knead and carry and set out, all the while hoping the baker would not change his mind and call for the police after all.

And then, as sudden as the moment of madness which had caused him to break a window pane the night before: grace. Life.

Jean Valjean trudged through the snow, his feet frozen, his stomach roiling, his mind dazed; it seemed to him, vaguely but unshakeably, that in an amazing way he had barely escaped a huge and unknown horror.

 

***

 

The snow lay knee-deep against the wall of the cottage. He caught sight of his sister outside; she was bent over, scooping snow into a bucket: the well was frozen and she would melt the snow on the fireplace, as long as there was fuel. He remembered that there had been no food in the house when he left yesterday. The thought made him break into an almost-run the last twenty yards.

At the sound of his approaching footsteps, she looked up, and even in the early light he could see the dark hollows under her eyes.

"Jean!" she said, putting down the bucket, pulling her ragged shawl tighter around her shoulders and taking a step towards him as he came to a halt in front of her. Her face was clouded, her mouth narrow, and for a moment he thought she might slap him, as if he were still a little boy. "So there you are! Where have you been? Why didn't you come home last night? You knew we were waiting, that --"

Here she interrupted herself, catching sight of the bundle. "What's that?" Her eyes flickered to his face. "You didn't...?"

"It was given to me," he said feebly, handing it over to her. "Here, take it, I'll tell you everything, just take it to them before it's too late --"

The look on her face as she pulled the rags away and discovered what was hidden underneath -- the bread was cold by now, but still fresh, as golden as the sun and as life-giving -- was one of confusion, then of disbelief, then of wonder. As she raised her eyes to meet his, he saw there were tears in them to mirror his own.

"Jean," she said, and now her voice was feeble too. "Where did this come from?"

At that moment, the sound of a child's crying reached them from inside the cottage. They both turned towards it instinctively. Jeanne Valjean looked down at the bread in her arms again, blinking. Then she nodded, almost invisibly, as if to herself.

"Come inside," she said, turning towards the door. As he followed, he caught the sight of her face again, and again he felt it to mirror his own in its stupefaction: she kept gazing at him, and then down at the armful of bread -- as if she couldn't believe her own eyes, as if what had happened was nothing short of a miracle.