Jeanot and the Leopards

As many of you know, Arielle and I have been rewriting one of my books,  L’Amérique. The work deals with a French family’s decision to move to the United States in the mid-50s. Here is a brief excerpt.

Jeanot had found his life’s calling in the latest Tintin magazine. Like Albert Schweitzer, Jeanot was going to go to Africa to cure the leopards. The illness sounded dreadful and it was not fair that the sick leopards weren’t allowed to mix with others of their kinds. There was a picture in the magazine of Schweitzer wearing an explorer hat and looking both kindly and sad, with skinny natives surrounding him, hired help, Jeanot figured, to catch the leopards. The sky was cloudless, it looked warm, and the black people were obviously friendly if very, very thin. Maybe working with leopards had its difficulties.schweitzer

Jeanot had met a few black people in Paris. They were always pleasant with their strange accents and startling white eyes, and they looked nothing like the ones in the photo with Dr. Schweitzer. Obviously coming to France from Africa was a beneficial experience—maybe it was the weather, Jeanot thought, or the air in Africa was somehow different. Certainly the air in Benodet near the sea had little in common with the sooty-smelling stuff in Paris, and Jeanot noticed that whenever he left town for a day or two, the bothersome scratch at the back of his throat vanished. Maybe the air in Africa was worse, which would explain why the people helping Schweitzer with the leopards all looked skinny and ill.

Jeanot told his father about the leopards. “Look, Papa!” He opened the Tintin to the center pages and pointed to a photo. “I want to work with the leopards too, just like Doctor Schwe—“ He had a hard time pronouncing the string of consonants.

Papa said, “Schweitzer,” and then laughed so hard he made choking sounds. He swept up his son and carried him to Maman, where he told him to repeat the story. Jeanot did so with a little less confidence.

“I want to be like Doctor Schweitzer,” he pronounced the name right this time.

Papa was still smiling. Jeanot shot him an arch look. “Why are you laughing? There are very sick leopards in Africa!” He didn’t think ailing leopards was a funny subject at all, and when Maman tried to explain the leopards were fine, it was the people—lepers—that the good Dr. Schweitzer tried to heal, Jeanot was certain his mother was wrong—the people didn’t have spots on them and looked fit if a little thin—but he chose not to argue the point. He did, though, ask about the African air. Both his parents had been in North Africa during the war. “Do you think people breathe differently in Africa? Is the air bad there?”

Papa, who’d contracted malaria while serving with the Free French in Algeria, thought about it for a moment. “I think, maybe yes, Jeanot. I think there are little animals and bugs there that we don’t have here.”

“And we breathe them in?”

“Yes. Or maybe you eat without washing your hands, or the little bugs get into a cut…”

“Really?” Jeanot always had some sort of scrape or cut and he wasn’t that good about handwashing. After the leopard discussion, he went to the bathroom and scrubbed himself pink, including under the fingernails. No African bugs were going to get him.

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