It was a week from the end of the world, and France headed out to see England for the last time. He took his black umbrella out of the umbrella stand by the door and looked one last time at the apartment he had been living in since the beginning of the twentieth century.
That was the corner where the couch was when he surrendered to Germany; that was the kitchen where he first entertained Prussia after the fall of the Berlin wall; that was the TV that he and Belgium had watched the Netherlands flood on.
England was here, too. Had been here. He was a spirit that couldn’t be exorcised. Most dust was made up of skin, so he was still here; and he would never really leave, having been long ago brushed in between the cracks in the floor. France imagined that if he moved out every piece of furniture, tore out the floorboards and the baseboard, peeled off decade after decade of wallpaper, he would find a whole new England, an old England, the England who had been with him all those years. But now was not a time for reminiscing, so he shook off his umbrella and left.
The streets of Paris were deserted, as there was little reason to go outside anymore. Rain came down in steady clumps of drops. France held out his hand, and several drops fell on it. They felt dry, evaporating as soon as they touched his skin. He sighed.
Gare du Nord, the train station, was about six blocks away. Through the whole walk, France only saw one other person: a rather tall man, under a black umbrella of his own. The windows of the apartments flickered with the light from TV sets, though almost everyone had their curtains drawn.
The good thing about the acid rain was that it had long ago dissolved all of the gum that had encased the streets of Paris. But it also left the streets abandoned. The patios where there had once been chairs from the local cafés were now empty. And what a time he had had on those patios—talking, eating, drinking, painting, overhearing. England had been there with him as well, complaining about the weather or the food or why do your people have to spend so much time outside it’s barbaric.
France sighed, and then continued walking.
Gare du Nord was fuller than the streets but still held far fewer people that it had been designed for. Most of these people were refugees, either fleeing the drought in Central Europe or the flooded Low Countries, sitting on their suitcases with everything they owned spread around them like haloes. For a moment, he was seized by dual strong convictions—to let all of these people in, show them the empty apartments and jobs and lives that had been left by environmental disasters and lowering birth rates—and to push them out, further and further to the mountains in the south and into the sea—
But such is the nature of a nation. He had always hated red tape.
France walked up to the ticket counter. It felt emptier than the rest of the train station. No one else was in line ahead of him, so the ticketer sat with her feet up on the table, reading a collection of Marie de France’s poetry. France almost said something about it to her, but then the words caught tangled with the poet’s life, with the English court she had lived at and he had visited, once, many times, so long ago.
“I would like to go to London,” he told the ticketer.
She took her feet off the desk and set the book down on its pages. “Three thousand euros,” she said.
For a moment, France panicked. But then he remembered inflation that had risen, steadily at first, then faster and faster, like dry skin flaking off. In order to understand money, nations needed to be in touch with their flesh, while their politics and art distracted their brains.
In the train, he was alone in his car, so he settled about three quarters of the way down and leaned his head against a window. Cool and dark. It was possible—likely, in fact, that he was not the only one on the train; he could walk up and down the cars and find someone else, one of his citizens—humans were generally not averse to talking to their nation, and it was something he had done many times before, around important meetings or times of great national stress. An escape, that was what it was. And he should acknowledge that. So, he closed his eyes and focused inward, unspooling history from within him, going back through the presidents and the kings until he caught on something he had never quite finished thinking through.
England. He’d heard of him long before the first time he’d met him. Nations grew up with geography etched onto their skin—mostly that of their country, but the rest of the world was nearby, passing over the hairs on his skin, so France grew up with a vague, dusty feeling of the island across the channel.
And he’d heard from his mother, staunch Gallia, about the little rascal who lived to the north and east of him. Rome, too, once they were conquered and living under his thumb. That was the first time he’d seen England, his green eyes meeting France’s over the folds of his tunic.
But France had thought enough about that time period. There was no doubt that it was nostalgia—that an uncomfortable childhood had become comforting enough to him over the long eras of empire, of loneliness and drafty bedrooms with woolen sheets. He was ashamed of his nostalgia, in some ways. And besides, it wasn’t like he had enjoyed his childhood. Nations rarely did, since childhood was the time they were the most likely to be under the control of others.
So, France compelled his mind to speed up his memories. That time period ended—the Goths fell in on Rome—and by then, he was back in the pentagon-shaped corner of Europe that had always been his home, more or less. Great uncertainty—then Clovis, then Charlemagne. The miracle of Paris, which France would maintain was the most beautiful city in the world. Maybe it wasn’t much to look at back then—not even the medieval metropolis it would become, with narrow, pointed roofs—but beautiful nonetheless.
Power fled from him and focused in duchies and principalities, Normandy and Aquitaine and Brittany and Champagne and Burgundy and Flanders. But that by itself wasn’t miserable. The functioning of the state—the taxes and military and battles and putting down peasant uprisings—and that was so much of it back then, violence—was simply somewhere else. France lived with the King, eating banquets and listening to bards and generally having a great time by himself and with his King.
That was how it was for so long—the King was the position of God’s authority on earth, the King was what bound the nation together—nation and King, similar enough positions, together always … he could never forget the way Louis XXVI looked at him, betrayed—but that was much later, and unimportant anyway. The world changed; kings were no longer relevant.
But before that, before that, when his and England’s relationship fell apart, layer by layer. Before they were in the European Union together, before they were allies, before they were the entente, before they were empires—back when they were insolent children.
It was a few years—or maybe a few decades, France got worse at telling time the older he got—after England had been conquered by Normandy. And that was the purpose of that visit—to rein Normandy in. What right—what right did he—his Duke—have? Declaring the Duke of Normandy to be the King of England, and for Normandy himself to be equal to France.
Later on, each of France’s states would be guillotined during the Revolution. Most of them France would summon up some pity for, at the bare minimum because of their shared state of being nations, but he had never quite gotten along with Normandy. And even later, when absolutism was replaced with federalism, he would always maintain a pang of envy for countries like America or Germany or Japan, who were on good terms with their states, never quite losing the irony that his long companion during those times—partner and friend and lover and enemy—was really not much more than a state himself.
So, France’s king, Philip I, had sent him there, mostly to cut Normandy’s ego down to size. Or so France convinced himself while he rode a cog across the very same waters he was traveling underneath now, standing on the lower part of the deck, watching the water speed by beneath him. Philip had been ambiguous in his instructions, so perhaps he meant moreso for France to surrender to Normandy than for him to go back to controlling him. But France couldn’t, wouldn’t accept that.
France was prideful. Now was not a time to mask his flaws from himself.
Tradition far older than him dictated that nations deal with one another. In the best times, this meant that the affairs of humans were of little concern to them, that they floated over them, even if their arguments mirrored those of the mortals in the next room. In the worst times, this meant extended meetings with people he hadn’t liked for hundreds of years.
So France was surprised and disappointed when Normandy made himself scarce during his visit to the English court. He had been introduced to Normandy’s king that first night, the recently crowned William II.
“Ríce Francland,” a squire had introduced him, in the Old English style. And France would be lying if he didn’t think the entire time about how much that tongue needed to be civilized—about how his language would smooth out its edges.
It wasn’t unusual for courts back then to speak Latin, but the Old English sent a clear enough message—he was on foreign territory, and he wasn’t welcome.
France was ill-suited for politics. He was having a great time: just being in a different place, a different castle with different rooms, filled with tapestries and candlelight. Although he loved Paris, he had scarcely stepped out of his homeland since the Romans had retreated and the simple fact of another country kept him entertained for a little while.
Not to mention that every noble he was introduced to treated him with respect. The title of ríce never left him those days—and when had that stopped? For centuries, humans had called him Nation of France, and then it got shortened all the way to France, and then Francis. Terribly informal.
Anyway. In some ways, that was how he knew England when he saw him on that trip. They had met a few times before, here and there, so it wasn’t that he didn’t know what he looked like, but those intense green eyes, that didn’t question him, mirrored his, weren’t subservient to him …
Part of him had been surprised that England was alive at all. The mechanics of conquering nations have never quite made sense to him, but England was irrelevant to him; there was only Normandy.
France leaned away from the glass. The train was probably at full speed, tons and tons of water passing over head. And there was no use in lying to himself.
He’d been relieved that England was still around.
“Francland?” England said, sneering at him through a heavy curtain. “I thought Normandig was in charge.”
“Normanz is in control here, yes,” France was unsure how else to describe it. Part of him felt a smug pride at the idea that one of his duchies controlled England; the more logical part knew that Normandy was the greater problem at the moment. “This is a diplomatic visit. I can come and go as I wish,” unlike you.
“Oh,” England said, sitting down on a chaise longue. The sneer disappeared, replaced by a more ambiguous expression. “To think you’d actually want to see me.” And France felt a pang of something at that. England was being sarcastic; he didn’t actually want him there. “Anyway. I don’t envy you. One of your duchies being so rebellious.”
“That’s not true—” France started, then stopped. He wouldn’t get any satisfaction out of England’s response to that. “Well, it’s better than being conquered by an irrelevant duchy with more cliffs than trees.”
“Conquered?” England said. “I’ll show you conquered!” He stood up and hit France in the cheekbone, which then France recoiled from and grabbed his arm.
“And if someone sees us?” France muttered. He was generally not shy about fighting England, but this was supposed to be serious, or something. Besides, England’s habit of turning to blows over the most minor provocation, a habit he wouldn’t lose until midway through the 16th century, annoyed France. Didn’t he realize that nations fighting had more consequences than humans? But maybe he liked that.
England pulled his arm out of France’s grasp. “I will though.”
France rolled his eyes.
“Right now I may be conquered—may be under your control—or, even worse, the control of one of your ‘irrelevant’ duchies—but one day I will control you.”
“No—I will do better than that. I will be an empire—greater than Rome. I will have a quarter of the world’s people under my control.”
“Nonsense, England,” France said. “You’re speaking nonsense.”
“No,” England maintained. “I will. You’ll see.” He leaned back. France met his eyes again and saw, for a moment, what it must be that humans see in nations’ eyes. There was a wildness, a bloodlust, a green so dark it could only be from forests that humans never touched—or, no, the color of the darkest elements of the human soul—
“That’s ridiculous,” France said. But his own words seemed flimsy, meaningless. He knew England would—and he would, too, always be there too, doing the same things on the opposite side of the world.
From there, the years unrolled effortlessly. That was what England had done, and him as well—conquered and conquered, until, all the sudden, the whole world fell to their feet.
But he couldn’t go back to that time—to that off-beat meeting that was really about Normandy—and say that was the beginning of their rivalry. It must have started before that, at an actually important meeting or when they were children and been underway at that point—had to have been, even if it was Normandy that conquered England and not France.
And the rivalry mattered because that was what had spiraled out into everything else—the romance, the friendship, the alliance—
Sometimes France thought that it was their relationship that had ruined the world so. But that wasn’t true—even with his abbreviated nation conscience, he couldn’t accept responsibility. Better to blame it on China or Africa or America some other place that was so far away it hadn’t existed to them back then.
France came back into his senses as the train was slowing down. They were still deep underground. That had never made him feel claustrophobic, perhaps because Spain was right: to be underground was to be among their own kind—the dead or the dirt.
Really what he wanted to ask England all of those years was—did he remember that moment as well?
The train stopped at the platform and France got off. A few people sat around, waiting at one place or another, on their suitcases as they had at Gare du Nord. On brighter days, the glass roof of the station had lit it almost entirely, but now that a dark cloud had permanently descended over the city, the lights were on in the middle of the day.
France headed up one of the escalators, facing the long-faded Olympic rings. Outside, it was raining harder than it had been in Paris, and the large raindrops sounded like so many explosions, on the sidewalk and roofs and France’s umbrella.
The air outside was viscous. France took a deep breath, feeling the earth particles take their rightful place in his lungs. Then, he—the human part of him—coughed.
He walked the maze of streets to England’s flat, the pattern of which had become a routine. The door was a solid red one, with little windows that showed an abandoned foyer. France knocked twice, hoping England would recognize the sound of his fist against the wood.
And a few minutes later, probably minutes England spent on the other side of the door, relishing the idea of France in the rain, his hair and jacket being ruined, England opened the door.
He looked worse than he had in decades. His hair was matted and unkept and the perpetual dark circles around his eyes seemed darker than usual. He’d lost weight, and his bones poked out at the shoulders and wrists. “Why are you here,” he said, his voice downtrodden and defeated.
“I can’t come call on an old friend?” France asked.
England glared at him, either at the call or the old friend. Or perhaps the come. But he opened the door anyway, and France stepped inside the flat, grateful for the filtered air.
“What do you want?” England said.
France put his umbrella on England’s umbrella stand and hung up his coat on the rack. “Makes you think about everything, doesn’t it?” He stepped into England’s living room, which was filled with a similar mix-match of eras to France’s.
“What?” England said, trailing him.
France gestured out the window. “All of that. Say, do you remember when Normandy conquered you—”
“Nostalgic for the time you ruled over me?” England said.
France sighed. After the revolution, England had become even more stubborn in his refusal to distinguish France from any of his former states. “You remember when I came to visit you?”
“There were lots of times,” England said. He sat down across from France.
“The first time,” France said. “I was there to be angry with Normandy over him trying to take the higher title—”
“Yes, I remember that situation,” England said. “What does this have to do with us?” He paused on the last syllable, reminding France of the times they had stood side by side. England stood up again. “Tea?” he offered.
“Aren’t you cordial?” France said. “Sure.”
“I still have my manners,” England said, in a voice that, four hundred years earlier, would have made France assume the tea was poisoned.
“But anyway,” France said, trailing him into the kitchen. “You said you wanted to conquer the world—”
“We all said things back then—you should have seen how Normandy treated me when you weren’t there,” England said. The pause should come between the sentences found itself at the end instead, with England’s face contorting to cover a vulnerability he wasn’t sure he should have showed.
France paused for a moment, unsure what to make of that. “Well, it was different though. Because we actually did.”
“I suppose so,” England said, turning the stove on. “But if you’re here to reminisce about the empire with me, you’re sixty years too late.” He chuckled. “You were the one who was always ‘European cooperation’ this and ‘alliances’ that, and now you want me to remember the empire.” England walked back into the living room, and France followed.
“But I don’t want to talk about the empire,” he said. “I want to talk about before that.”
“Before that? You mean when you conquered me? You’re nostalgic for that?” England said.
The reason France had convinced himself he had wanted to see England—to see if he really meant that he wanted to control a quarter of the world’s population—suddenly seemed small and meek compared to England’s presence. “No,” he said. “I just want—” what was he saying—“you …”
“Well, you’re too late for that, too,” England said. “Or have you forgotten? The internet of everyone will be a good thing, get all of your citizens on it,” he said, in a high-pitched mockery of France’s voice. “And how did that end up …” he shoved his hand out by the window.
“Climate change was happening anyway, England,” he said. “And pollution.”
“And your little—connect-everyone-to-each-other wasn’t much of a solution, was it? Everyone connected with one another—everyone distracted.”
France still didn’t think it mattered, but there was no reason to relive their last argument with each other. And wasn’t that unfair, in a way? That the politics—the thing they had so little control over—was why they broke up. And it was always why they broke up—the big ideas of the time, the things that humans lost their lives over. The most important things. Whatever happened to them was generalized, symbolic and philosophical. Before he’d taken that as flattery, as the reason why he should be glad for this existence over a mortal one.
But now it seemed unfair. Why did the humans’ machinations have to take precedence over their love?
And that’s what it was—love. France had said that before of his and England’s relationship, to himself and the humans and the other nations and even to England, but always as a way to hurt him.
Maybe that’s what it was the whole time, not just the good times, but the bad as well, love, but a love so toxic and destructive and violent—
But, as soon as that thought occurred to him, it seemed insufficient. The feeling between them wasn’t love—it was something deeper, more encompassing. Or maybe it was love, but love he would have to stretch and widen in order to encompass him and England and the channel between them—
And he would, he realized. That was what he’d felt in that moment, all of those years ago, the beginnings of this … love. All that remained was to explain it to England.
“Well?” England asked.
France opened his mouth, “I,” he said, love you. But that seemed wrong, so he switched. “Je,” he said. “t'aime.”
The kettle beeped in the other room. England glared at him once and left to get the tea.
And, France realized, he was out of time. The North Sea was supposed to come in at any moment now—he imagined it was already covering parts of England’s shores, parts that had been exposed for thousands of years now. The Chunnel—and wasn’t that a cute neologism? England’s—would close soon enough, once it was no longer worth stopping the waters from coming in. How long would it take him to explain the whole thing, what he’d been thinking on the train, and here, and now, and for all the thousands of years before this?
England came in with the teas. One red mug and one green mug—the same he’d had for a hundred years. The red one was England’s—he claimed it made his tea sweeter and refused to budge on that point. He handed the green mug to France.
All France could do was start, and so he opened his mouth again.