Для тех, кто хочет быть лучшим! Оригинальный текст и перевод на страницах одной книги – это эффективный способ усовершенствовать знание английского языка. От матери в наследство Фрамбуаза получила альбом с кулинарными рецептами – негусто, если учесть, что ее брату Кассису досталась ферма, а старшей сестре Рен-Клод – винный погреб со всем содержимым. Но весь фокус в том, что на полях альбома, рядом с рецептами разных блюд и травяных снадобий, мать записывала свои мысли и признания относительно некоторых событий ее жизни – словом, вела своеобразный дневник. И в этом дневнике Фрамбуаза пытается найти ответы на мрачные загадки прошлого. «Харрис создала многослойный сюжет, усыпанный восхитительными описаниями французских книг и раскрывающий встряхивающий эффект войны на хрупкое семейное устройство». – Publishers Weekly «Из ее книг эта – пока самая сильная: острая, с горчинкой…» – Independent В формате PDF A4 сохранен издательский макет.
Приведённый ознакомительный фрагмент книги Five Quarters of the Orange / Пять четвертинок апельсина предоставлен нашим книжным партнёром — компанией ЛитРес.
Copyright © Frogspawn Limited 2001
© И. Тогоева, перевод на русский язык, 2022
© Издание на русском языке, оформление. ООО Издательство «Эксмо», 2022
Five Quarters of the Orange
When my mother died she left the farm to my brother, Cassis, the fortune in the wine cellar to my sister, Reine-Claude, and to me, the youngest, her album and a two-liter jar containing a single black Périgord truffle, large as a tennis ball, suspended in sunflower oil, that, when uncorked, still releases the rich dank perfume of the forest floor. A fairly unequal distribution of riches, but then Mother was a force of nature, bestowing her favors as she pleased, leaving no insight as to the workings of her peculiar logic.
And as Cassis always said, I was the favorite.
Not that she ever showed it when she was alive. For my mother there was never much time for indulgence, even if she’d been the type. Not with her husband killed in the war, and the farm to run alone. Far from being a comfort to her widowhood, we were a hindrance to her with our noisy games, our fights, our quarrels. If we fell ill she would care for us with reluctant tenderness, as if calculating the cost of our survival, and what love she showed took the most elementary forms: cooking pots to lick, jam pans to scrape, a handful of wild strawberries collected from the straggling border behind the vegetable patch and delivered without a smile in a twist of handkerchief. Cassis would be the man of the family. She showed even less softness toward him than to the rest of us. Reinette was already turning heads before she reached her teens, and my mother was vain enough to feel pride at the attention she received. But I was the extra mouth, no second son to expand the farm, certainly no beauty.
I was always the troublesome one, the discordant one, and after my father died I became sullen and defiant. Skinny and dark like my mother, with her long graceless hands and flat feet, her wide mouth, I must have reminded her too much of herself, for there was often a tightness at her mouth when she looked at me, a kind of stoic appraisal, of fatalism. As if she foresaw that it was I, not Cassis or Reine-Claude, who would carry her memory forward. As if she would have preferred a more fitting vessel.
Perhaps that was why she gave me the album, valueless then except for the thoughts and insights jotted in the margins alongside recipes and newspaper cuttings and herbal cures. Not a diary, precisely. There are almost no dates in the album, no precise order. Pages were inserted into it at random, loose leaves later bound together with small, obsessive stitches, some pages thin as onionskin, others cut from pieces of card trimmed to fit inside the battered leather cover. My mother marked the events of her life with recipes, dishes of her own invention or interpretations of old favorites. Food was her nostalgia, her celebration, its nurture and preparation the sole outlet for her creativity. The first page is given to my father’s death-the ribbon of his Légion d’Honneur pasted thickly to the paper beneath a blurry photograph and a neat recipe for black buckwheat pancakes-and carries a kind of gruesome humor. Under the picture my mother has penciled Remember-dig up Jerusalem artichokes. Ha! Ha! Ha! in red.
In other places she is more garrulous, but with many abbreviations and cryptic references. I recognize some of the incidents to which she refers. Others are twisted to suit the moment’s needs. Still others seem to be complete inventions, lies, impossibilities. In many places there are blocks of tiny script in a language I cannot understand. Ini tnawini inoti plainexini. Ini nacini inton inraebi inti ynani eromni. Sometimes a single word, scrawled across the top or side of the page seemingly at random. On one page, seesaw in blue ink, on another, wintergreen, rapscallion, ornament in orange crayon. On another, what might be a poem, though I never saw her open any book other than one of recipes. It reads:
like some bright fruit
plum peach apricot
It is a whimsical touch, which surprises and troubles me. That this stony and prosaic woman should in her secret moments harbor such thoughts. For she was sealed off from us-from everyone-with such fierceness that I had thought her incapable of yielding.
I never saw her cry. She rarely smiled, and then only in the kitchen with her palette of flavors at her fingertips, talking to herself (so I thought) in the same toneless mutter, enunciating the names of herbs and spices-cinnamon, thyme, peppermint, coriander, saffron, basil, lovage-running a monotonous commentary. See the tile. Has to be the right heat. Too low, the pancake is soggy. Too high, the butter fries black, smokes, the pancake crisps. I understood later that she was trying to educate me. I listened because I saw in our kitchen seminars the one way in which I might win a little of her approval, and because every good war needs the occasional amnesty. Country recipes from her native Brittany were her favorites; the buckwheat pancakes we ate with everything, the far breton and kouign amann and galette bretonne that we sold in downriver Angers with our goat’s cheeses and our sausage and fruit.
She always meant Cassis to have the farm. But Cassis was the first to leave, casually defiant, for Paris, breaking all contact except for his signature on a card every Christmas, and when she died, thirty years on, there was nothing to interest him in a half-derelict farmhouse on the Loire. I bought it from him with my own savings, my widow money, and at a good price too, but it was a fair deal, and he was happy enough to make it then. He understood the need to keep the place in the family.
Now, of course, all that’s changed. Cassis has a son of his own. The boy married Laure Dessanges, the food writer, and they own a restaurant in Angers. Aux Délices Dessanges. I met him a few times before Cassis died. I didn’t like him. Dark and flashy, already running to fat as his father did, though still handsome and knowing it, he seemed to be everywhere at once in his eagerness to please; called me Mamie; found a chair, insisted I take the most comfortable seat; made coffee, sugared, creamed, asked after my health, flattered me on this and that till I was almost dizzy with it. Cassis, sixty-odd then and swollen with the seeds of the coronary that would kill him, looked on with barely restrained pride. My son. See what a fine man he is. What a fine, attentive nephew you have.
Cassis called him Yannick, after our father, but I liked my nephew no more for that. That’s my mother in me, the dislike of conventions, of false intimacies. I don’t like to be touched and simpered over. I don’t see why the blood we share should tie us in affection. Or the secret of spilled blood we hid for so long between us.
Oh, yes. Don’t think I forgot that business. Not for a minute I didn’t, though the others tried hard enough. Cassis scrubbing pissoirs outside his Paris bar. Reinette working as an usherette in a porno cinema in Pigalle and sniffing from man to man like a lost dog. So much for her lipstick and silk stockings. At home she’d been the harvest queen, the darling, the undisputed village beauty. In Montmartre all women look the same. Poor Reinette.
I know what you’re thinking. You wish I’d get on with the story. It’s the only story about the old days that interests you now; the only thread in this tattered flag of mine that still catches the light. You want to hear about Tomas Leibniz. To have it clear, categorized, ended. Well, it isn’t as easy as that. Like my mother’s album, there are no page numbers. No beginning, and the end is raw as the seamless edge of an unhemmed skirt. But I’m an old woman-seems here just about everything gets old so quickly; must be the air-and I have my way of going about things. Besides, there are so many things for you to understand. Why my mother did what she did. Why we hid the truth for so long. And why I’m choosing to tell my story now, to strangers, to people who believe that a life can be condensed to a two-page spread in a Sunday supplement, a couple of photographs, a paragraph, a quote from Dostoevsky. Turn the page and it’s over.
No. Not this time. They’re going to take down every word. Can’t make them print it, of course, but by God, they’ll listen. I’ll make them do it.
My name is Framboise Dartigen. I was born right here, in the village of Les Laveuses, not fifteen kilometers from Angers, on the Loire. I’ll be sixty-five next July, baked and yellowed by the sun like a dried apricot. I have two daughters, Pistache, married to a banker in Rennes, and Noisette, who moved to Canada in ‘85 and writes to me every six months, two grandchildren who come to stay at the farm every summer. I wear black for a husband who died twenty years ago, under whose name I returned in secret to the village of my birth to buy back my mother’s farm-long abandoned, half gutted by fire and the elements. Here I am Françoise Simon, la veuve Simon, and no one would think to connect me with the Dartigen family who left in the wake of that dreadful business. I don’t know why it had to be this farm, this village. Perhaps I’m just stubborn. That was how it was. This is where I belong. The years with Hervé seem almost a blank now, like the strange calm patches you sometimes get in a stormy sea, a moment of waiting, of forgetfulness. But I never really forgot Les Laveuses. Not for a moment. Something in me was always here.
It took more than a year to make the farmhouse habitable. I lived in the south-facing wing, where at least the roof had held, and while the workmen replaced the roofing, tile by tile, I worked in the orchard-what was left of it-pruning and shaping and dragging down great wreaths of devouring mistletoe from the trees. My mother had a passion for all fruit except oranges, which she refused to allow in the house. She named each one of us, on a seeming whim, after a fruit and a recipe-Cassis, for her thick black-currant cake, Framboise, her raspberry liqueur, and Reinette after the reine-claude greengages that grew against the south wall of the house, thick as grapes, syrupy with wasps in midsummer. At one time we had over a hundred trees (apples, pears, plums, gages, cherries, quinces), not to mention the raspberry canes and the fields of strawberries, gooseberries, currants-the fruits of which were dried, stored, made into jams and liqueurs and wonderful cartwheel tarts on pâte brisée and crème pâtissière and almond paste. My memories are flavored with their scents, their colors, their names. My mother tended them as if they were her favorite children. Smudge pots against the frost, which we fed with our own winter fuel. Barrows full of manure dug around the base every spring. And in summer, to keep the birds away, we would tie shapes cut out of silver paper onto the ends of the branches that would shiver and flick-flack in the wind, moose blowers of string drawn tightly across empty tin cans to make eerie bird-frightening sounds, windmills of colored paper that would spin wildly, so that the orchard was a carnival of baubles and shining ribbons and shrieking wires, like a Christmas party in midsummer.
And the trees all had names. Belle Yvonne, my mother would say as she passed a gnarled pear tree. Rose d’Aquitaine. Beurre du Roi Henry. Her voice at these times was soft, almost monotone. I could not tell whether she was speaking to me or to herself. Conference. Williams. Ghislaine de Penthièvre. This sweetness.
Today there are fewer than twenty trees left in the orchard, though I have quite enough for my needs. My sour cherry liqueur is especially popular, though I feel a little guilty that I cannot remember the cherry’s name. The secret is to leave the stones in. Layer cherries and sugar one on the other in a widemouthed glass jar, covering each layer gradually with clear spirit (kirsch is best, but you can use vodka or even Armagnac) up to half the jar’s capacity. Top up with spirit and wait. Every month, turn the jar carefully to release any accumulated sugar. In three years’ time the spirit has bled the cherries white, itself stained deep red now, penetrating even to the stone and the tiny almond inside it, becoming pungent, evocative, a scent of autumn past. Serve in tiny liqueur glasses, with a spoon to scoop out the cherry, and leave it in the mouth until the macerated fruit dissolves under the tongue. Pierce the stone with the point of a tooth to release the liqueur trapped inside and leave it for a long time in the mouth, playing it with the tip of the tongue, rolling it under, over, like a single prayer bead. Try to remember the time of its ripening, that summer, that hot autumn, the time the well ran dry, the time we had the wasps’ nests, time past, lost, found again in the hard place at the heart of the fruit…
I know. I know. You want me to get to the point. But this is at least as important as the rest, the method of telling, and the time taken to tell… It has taken me fifty-five years to begin. At least let me do it in my own way.
When I came back to Les Laveuses I was almost sure no one would recognize me. All the same I showed myself clearly, almost brazenly, about the village. If someone did know me, if they managed to distinguish in my features those of my mother, then I wanted to know it immediately. I wanted to know where I stood.
I walked to the Loire every day and sat on the flat stones where Cassis and I had fished for tench. I stood on the stump of the Lookout Post. Some of the Standing Stones are missing now, but you can still see the pickets where we hung our trophies, the garlands and ribbons and Old Mother’s head when we finally caught her. I went to Brassaud’s tobacconist’s-his son runs it now, but the old man is still alive, his eyes black and baleful and aware-to Raphaël’s café, the post office where Ginette Hourias is postmistress.
I even went to the war memorial. On one side, the eighteen names of our soldiers killed in the war, beneath the carved motto Morts pour la patrie. I noticed that my father’s name has been chiseled off, leaving a rough patch between Darius G. and Fenouil J. — P. On the other side, a brass plaque with ten names in larger letters. I did not need to read them. I know them by heart. But I feigned interest, knowing that inevitably someone would tell me the story, perhaps show me the place against the west wall of Saint-Benedict’s, tell me that every year there was a special service to remember them, that their names were read out from the steps of the memorial and flowers laid out… I wondered whether I could bear it. I wondered whether they would know from my face.
Martin Dupré. Jean-Marie Dupré. Colette Gaudin. Philippe Hourias. Henri Lemaître. Julien Lanicen. Arthur Lecoz. Agnès Petit. François Ramondin. Auguste Truriand. So many people still remember. So many people with the same names, the same faces. The Families have stayed here, the Hourias, the Lanicens, the Ramondins, the Duprés. Sixty years later they still remember, the young coached in casual hatred by the old.
There was some interest in me for a time. Some curiosity. That same house. Abandoned since she left it, that Dartigen woman, I can’t quite remember the details, madame, but my father-my uncle-Why had I bought the place, anyway, they asked? It was an eyesore, a black spot. The trees that were still left standing were half rotten with mistletoe and disease. The well had been concreted over, filled in with rubble and stones. But I remembered a farm neat and thriving and busy, horses, goats, chickens, rabbits… I liked to think that perhaps the wild ones that ran across the north field might be their descendants, occasionally glimpsed patches of white among the brown. To satisfy the curious, I invented a childhood on a Breton farm. The land was cheap, I explained. I made myself humble, apologetic. Some of the old ones viewed me askance, thinking, perhaps, that the farm should have stayed a memorial forever. I wore black and hid my hair beneath a succession of scarves. You see, I was old from the beginning.
Even so, it took some time for me to be accepted. People were polite but unwelcoming, and because I am not of a naturally social disposition-surly, my mother used to call it-they remained so. I did not go to church. I know how it must have looked, but I could not bring myself to go. Arrogance, perhaps, or the kind of defiance that led my mother to name us after fruit rather than the Church’s saints… It took the shop to make me a part of the community.
It began as a shop, though I had always intended to expand later. Three years after my arrival, and Hervé‘s money was almost gone. The house was livable now, though the land was still virtually useless: a dozen trees, a vegetable patch, two pygmy goats and some chickens and ducks-clearly it would be some time before I could make a living from the land. I began to make cakes and to sell them-the brioche and pain d’épices of the region as well as some of my mother’s Breton specialties, packets of crêpes dentelle, fruit tarts and packs of sablés, biscuits, nut bread, cinnamon snaps… At first I sold them from the local bakery, then from the farm itself, adding other items little by little: eggs, goat’s cheeses, fruit liqueurs and wines. With the profits I bought pigs, rabbits, more goats. I used my mother’s old recipes, working most often from memory, but consulting the album from time to time.
Memory plays such strange games; no one in Les Laveuses seemed even to remember my mother’s cooking. Some of the older people even said what a difference my presence had made; the woman who was here before was a hard-faced sloven. Her house reeked, her children ran barefoot. Good riddance to her, to them. I winced inwardly but said nothing. What could I have said? That she waxed the floorboards every day, made us wear felt over-slippers in the house so that our shoes would not scuff the floor? That her window boxes were always brimming with flowers? That she scrubbed us with the same fierce impartiality with which she scrubbed the steps, Indian-burning our faces with the flannel so that we were sometimes afraid we might bleed?
She is an evil legend here. There was even a book once. Not more than a pamphlet really. Fifty pages, a few photographs. One of the memorial, one of Saint-Benedict’s, a close-up of the fateful west wall. Only a passing reference to the three of us, not even our names. I was grateful for that. A blurry blown-up photograph of my mother, hair scraped back so fiercely from her face that her eyes looked chinesed, mouth crimped into a tight little line of disapproval. The official photograph of my father, the one from the album, in uniform, looking absurdly young, rifle slung casually over one arm, grinning. Then, almost at the end of the book, the photograph that made me catch my breath like a fish with a hook in its throat. Four young men in German uniforms, arms linked except for the fourth, standing a little to the side, self-consciously, a saxophone in one hand… The others are also carrying musical instruments-a trumpet, a side drum, a clarinet-and though their names are not given, I know them all. Les Laveuses military ensemble, circa 1942. Far right, Tomas Leibniz.
It took me some time to understand how they could have found out so many details. Where had they discovered the picture of my mother? As far as I knew there were no pictures of her. Even I had only ever seen one, an old wedding photo in the bottom of a bedroom drawer, two people on the steps of Saint-Benedict’s, he wearing a broad-brimmed hat and she loose-haired and with a flower behind one ear… A different woman, then, smiling stiffly, shyly at the camera, the man beside her standing with one arm protectively around her shoulders. I understood that if my mother knew I had seen the photograph she would be angry, and replaced it, trembling a little, troubled almost without knowing the reason why.
The photograph in the book is more like her, more like the woman I thought I knew but never knew at all, hard-faced and eternally on the brink of rage… Then, looking at the author’s picture on the flyleaf of the book, I finally understood from where the information had come. Laure Dessanges, journalist and food writer, short red hair and practiced smile. Yannick’s wife. Cassis’s daughter-in-law. Poor, stupid Cassis. Poor blind Cassis, blinded by his pride in his successful son. Risking our undoing for the sake of… what? Or had he really come to believe his fiction?
You have to understand that for us the Occupation was a very different matter than for those in the towns and the cities. Les Laveuses has barely changed since the war. Look at it now: a handful of streets, some still no more than broad dirt roads, reaching out from a main crossroads. There’s the church at the back, there, the monument in the Place des Martyrs with its bit of garden and the old fountain behind it, then on the Rue Martin et Jean-Marie Dupré, the post office, Petit’s butcher’s, the Café de la Mauvaise Réputation, the bar-tabac with its rack of postcards of the war memorial and old Brassaud sitting in his rocker by the step, the florist-funeral director opposite (food and death, always good trade in Les Laveuses), the general store-still run by the Truriand family, though fortunately a young grandson who only moved back recently-the old yellow-painted postbox.
Beyond the main street runs the Loire, smooth and brown as a sunning snake and broad as a wheat field, its surface broken in irregular patches by islands and sandbanks, which to the tourists driving by on the way to Angers might look as solid as the road beneath them. Of course, we know otherwise. The islands are moving all the time, rootless. Insidiously propelled by the movements of the brown water beneath, they sink and surface like slow yellow whales, leaving small eddies in their wake, harmless enough when seen from a boat, but deadly for a swimmer, the undertow pulling mercilessly beneath the smooth surface, dragging the unwary down to choke undramatically, invisibly… There are still fish in the old Loire, tench and pike and eels grown to monstrous proportions on sewage and the rotting stuff of upriver. Most days you’ll see boats out there, though half the time the fishermen throw back what they catch.
By the old jetty, Paul Hourias has a shack from which he sells bait and fishing tackle, not spitting distance away from where we used to fish, he and Cassis and I, and where Jeannette Gaudin was bitten by the water snake. Paul’s old dog lies at his feet, eerily like the brown mongrel that was his constant companion in the old days, and he watches the river, dangling a piece of string into the water as if he hopes to catch something.
I wonder if he remembers. Sometimes I see him looking at me-he’s one of my regulars-and I could almost think that he does. He’s aged, of course-so have we all. His moony, round face has darkened, grown pouchy and mournful. A limp mustache the color of chewed tobacco. A cigarette end between his teeth. He seldom speaks-he never was talkative-but he watches with that sad-dog expression, a navy beret crammed over his skull. He likes my pancakes, my cider. Perhaps that’s why he never said anything. He was never one to cause a scene.
I had been back for almost six years when I opened the crêperie. By then I had money set aside, custom, acceptance. I had a boy working for me on the farm-a boy from Courlé, not from one of the Families-and I took on a girl to help with the service. I started with only five tables-the trick has always been to think small at first, to avoid alarming people-but eventually I had double that, plus what I could fit on the terrasse in front on fine days. I kept it simple. My menu was limited to buckwheat pancakes with a choice of fillings, plus one main dish every day and a selection of desserts. That way I could handle the cooking myself, leaving Lise to take the orders. I called the place Crêpe Framboise after the house specialty, a sweet pancake with raspberry coulis and my homemade liqueur, and I smiled a little to myself, thinking of their reaction if they could have known… Several of my regulars even came to calling the place Chez Framboise, which made me smile all the more.
It was at this point that men began to pay attention to me again. You understand, I had become quite a wealthy woman by Les Laveuses standards. I was barely fifty, after all. Plus I could cook and keep house… A number of men paid a kind of court to me, honest, good men like Gilbert Dupré and Jean-Louis Lelassiant, lazy men like Rambert Lecoz, who wanted a lifetime meal ticket. Even Paul, sweet Paul Hourias with his drooping nicotine-streaked mustache and his silences. Of course anything like that was out of the question. This was one foolishness I could never succumb to. Not that it caused me more than the occasional pang of regret; no. I had the business. I had my mother’s farm, my memories. A husband would lose me all that. There would be no way I could conceal forever my assumed identity, and though the villagers might have forgiven me my origins at first, they could not forget six years of deceit. So I refused every offer, the tentative and the bold, until I was generally held to be first inconsolable, then impregnable and then, finally, years later, too old.
I had been in Les Laveuses for almost ten years. For the last five I had invited Pistache and her family to stay during the summer holidays. I watched the children grow from curious big-eyed bundles to small brightly colored birds flying over my meadow and through my orchard on invisible wings. I have a good daughter in Pistache. Noisette (my secret favorite) is more like me; sly and rebellious, black eyes like mine and a heart full of wildness and resentment. I could have stopped her leaving-a word, a smile might have done it-but I did not; fearing, perhaps, that she would turn me into my mother. Her letters are flat and dutiful. Her marriage has ended badly. She works as a waitress in an all-night café in Montreal. She refuses my offers of money. Pistache is the woman Reinette might have been, plump and trusting, gentle with her children and fierce in their defense, soft brown hair and eyes as green as the nut from which she takes her name. Through her, through her children I have learned to relive the good parts of my childhood.
For them I learned to be a mother again, cooking pancakes and thick herb-and-apple sausages. I made jam for them from figs and green tomatoes and sour cherries and quinces. I let them play with the little brown mischievous goats and feed them crusts and pieces of carrot. We fed the hens, stroked the soft noses of the ponies, collected sorrel for the rabbits. I showed them the river and how to reach the sunny sandbanks. I warned them-with such a catch in my heart-of the dangers, the snakes, roots, eddies, quicksand, made them promise never, never to swim there. I showed them the woods beyond, the best places to find mushrooms, the ways of telling the fake chanterelle from the true, the sour bilberries growing wild under the thicket. This was the childhood my daughters should have had. Instead there was the wild coast of Côte d’Armor, where Hervé and I lived for a time, the windy beaches, pine forests, slate-roofed stone houses. I tried to be a good mother to them, really I did, but I felt there was always something missing. I realize now it was this house, this farm, these fields, the sleepy, reeking Loire of Les Laveuses. This is what I wanted for them, and I began again with my grandchildren. Indulging them, I indulged myself.
I like to think my mother might have done the same, given the chance. I imagine her as a placid grandmother, accepting my rebukes-Really, Mother, you’re going to spoil those children rotten-with an impenitent twinkle, and it does not seem as impossible as once it did. Or maybe I’m reinventing her. Maybe she really was as I remember her-a stony woman who never smiled, who watched me with that look of flat, incomprehensible hunger.
She never saw her granddaughters, never even knew they existed. I told Hervé my parents were dead, and he never questioned the lie. His father was a fisherman, his mother a little round partridge of a woman who sold the fish on the markets. I pulled them around me like a borrowed blanket, knowing that one day I would have to go back into the cold without them. A good man, Hervé, a calm man with no sharp edges in him upon which I could be cut. I loved him-not in the searing, desperate way I loved Tomas; but enough.
When he died in 1976-struck by lightning on an eel-fishing trip with his father-my grief was tinged with a feeling of inevitability, almost of relief. It had been good for a time, yes. But business-life-has to move on. I went back to Les Laveuses eighteen months later with the feeling of waking up after a long, dark sleep.
It may seem strange to you that I waited for so long before reading my mother’s album. It was my only legacy-except for the Périgord truffle-and in five years I had barely glanced at it. Of course, I knew so many of the recipes by heart that I hardly needed to read them, but even so… I had not even been present for the reading of the will. I can’t tell you on what day she died, though I can tell you where; in an old folks’ home in Vitré called La Gautraye, of stomach cancer. She’s buried there too, in the local cemetery, though I only went there once. Her grave is close to the far wall, by the refuse bins. Mirabelle DARTIGEN, it says, then some dates. I notice with little surprise that my mother lied to us about her age.
I don’t really know what prompted my first studies of her album. It was my first summer in Les Laveuses. There had been a drought, and the Loire was maybe a couple of meters lower than usual, showing ugly shrunken verges like the stump of a sick tooth. Roots straggled down into the water, bleached yellow-white by the sun, and children played among the roots on the sandbanks, paddling barefoot in the filthy brown puddles, poking with sticks at the rubbish floating from upstream. Until then I had avoided looking at the album, feeling absurdly at fault, a voyeuse, as if my mother might come in at any time and see me reading her strange secrets… Truth is, I didn’t want to know her secrets. Like walking into a room at night and hearing your parents making love: an inner voice told me it was wrong, and it took more than ten years for me to understand that the voice I heard was not my mother’s, but my own.
As I said, much of what she wrote was incomprehensible. The language-Italian-sounding, unpronounceable-in which much of the album was written was alien to me, and after a few abortive attempts to decipher it, I abandoned the attempt. The recipes were clear enough, printed in blue or violet ink, the mad scrawlings, poems, drawings, accounts between them written with no apparent logic, no order that I could discover.
Saw Guilherm Ramondin today. With his new wooden leg. He laughed at R-C staring. When she asked; didn’t it hurt? he said he was lucky. His father makes clogs. Half the work of a pair, ha ha, amp; half the chance of standing on your toes during the waltz, my pretty. I keep thinking about what it looks like inside the pinned-up trouser leg. Like an uncooked white pudding, tied up with a piece of string. Had to bite my mouth to stop myself from laughing.
The words are written, very small, above a recipe for white puddings. I found these short anecdotes disturbing, with their joyless humor.
In other places my mother speaks of her trees as if they are living people-Stayed up all night with Belle Yvonne, she was so sick with cold. And though she only ever seems to refer to her children by abbreviation-R-C, Cass and Fra — my father is never mentioned. Never. For many years I wondered why. Of course, I had no way of knowing what was written in the other sections, the secret sections. My father-what little I knew of him-might never have existed.
Then came the business with the article. I didn’t read it myself, you understand; it came in the kind of magazine that seems to view food simply as a style accessory-This year we’re all eating couscous, darling, it’s absolutely de rigueur — while for me food is simply food, a pleasure for the senses, a carefully constructed piece of ephemera, like fireworks, hard work sometimes, but not to be taken seriously, not art, for heaven’s sake, in one end and out the other. Anyway, there it was one day, in one of these fashion magazines. “Travels down the Loire,” or some such thing, a famous chef sampling restaurants on his way to the coast. I remember him too: a thin little man with his own salt and pepper pots wrapped in a napkin, and a notebook on his lap. He had my paëlla antillaise and the warm artichoke salad, then a piece of my mother’s kouign amann, with my own cidre bouché and a glass of liqueur framboise to finish. He asked me a lot of questions about my recipes, wanted to see my kitchen, my garden, was amazed when I showed him my cellar with its shelves of terrines and preserves and aromatic oils (walnut, rosemary, truffle) and vinegars (raspberry, lavender, sour apple), asked where I trained and seemed almost upset when the question made me laugh.
Perhaps I said too much. I was flattered, you see. Invited him to taste this and that. A slice of rillettes, another of my saucisson sec. A sip of my pear liqueur, the poiré my mother used to make in October with the windfall pears, fermenting already as they lay on the hot ground, gloved with brown wasps so that we had to use wooden tongs to pick them up… I showed him the truffle my mother had left me, carefully preserved in the oil like a fly in amber, and smiled as his eyes widened in amazement.
Have you any idea what a thing like that is worth?
Yes, I was flattered in my vanity. A little lonely too, perhaps; glad to talk to this man who knew my language, who could name the herbs in a terrine as he tasted it and who told me I was too good for this place, that it was a crime… Perhaps I dreamed a little. I should have known better.
The article came a few months later. Someone brought it to me, torn out of the magazine. A photograph of the crêperie, a couple of paragraphs.
“Visitors to Angers in search of authentic gourmet cuisine may head for the prestigious Aux Délices Dessanges. In so doing they would certainly miss one of the most exciting discoveries of my travels down the Loire…” Frantically I tried to remember whether I had told him about Yannick. “Behind the unpretentious façade of a country farmhouse a culinary miracle is at work.” A great deal of nonsense followed about “country traditions given a new lease of life by this lady’s creative genius”-impatiently, with a rising sense of panic I scanned the page for signs of the inevitable. A single mention of the name Dartigen and all my careful building work might begin to crumble…
It may seem I’m exaggerating. I’m not. The war is vividly remembered in Les Laveuses. There are people here who still don’t speak to each other. Denise Mouriac and Lucile Dupré, Jean-Marie Bonet and Colin Brassaud. Wasn’t there that business in Angers a few years ago, when an old woman was found locked in a room above a top-floor flat? Her parents had shut her there in 1945, when they found out she’d collaborated with the Germans. She was sixteen. Fifty years later they brought her out, old and mad, when her father finally died.
And what about those old men-eighty, ninety, some of them-locked away for war crimes? Blind old men, sick old men sweetened by dementia, their faces slack and uncomprehending. Impossible to believe that they might once have been young. Impossible to imagine bloody dreams inside those fragile, forgetful skulls. Smash the vessel, the essence evades you. The crime takes on a life-a justification-of its own.
“By a strange coincidence, the owner of Crêpe Framboise, Mme. Françoise Simon, just happens to be related to the owner of Aux Délices Dessanges…”
My breath stopped. I felt as if a flake of fire had blocked my windpipe and suddenly I was underwater, brown river clutching me under, fingers of flame reaching into my throat, my lungs…
“…our very own Laure Dessanges! Strange to say that she hasn’t managed to find out many of her aunt’s secrets. I for one much preferred the unpretentious charm of Crêpe Framboise to any of Laure’s elegant (but all too meager!) offerings.”
I breathed again. Not the nephew, but the niece. I had escaped discovery.
I promised myself then that there would be no more foolishness. No more talking to kind food writers. A photographer from another Paris magazine came to interview me a week later, but I refused to see him. Requests for interviews came by the post, but I left them unanswered. A publisher wrote to me with an offer to write a book of recipes. For the first time Crêpe Framboise was deluged by people from Angers, by tourists, by elegant people with flashy new cars. I turned them away by the dozen. I had my regulars, my ten to fifteen tables. I could not accommodate so many people.
I tried to behave as normally as I could. I refused to take advance bookings. People queued on the pavement. I had to engage another waitress, but otherwise I ignored the unwelcome attention. Even when the little food writer returned to argue-to reason with me-I would not listen to him. No, I would not allow him to use my recipes in his column. No, there was to be no book. No pictures. Crêpe Framboise would stay as it was, a provincial crêperie.
I knew that if I stonewalled for long enough they would leave me alone. But by that time the damage was done. Now Laure and Yannick knew where to find me.
Cassis must have told them. He had settled in a flat near the center of Paris, and though he had never been a good correspondent he wrote to me occasionally. His letters were filled with reports of his famous daughter-in-law, his fine son. Well, after the article and the stir it caused, they made it their business to find me. They brought Cassis with them, like a present. They seemed to think we would be moved, somehow, at seeing each other again after so many years, but though his eyes watered in a rheumy, sentimental sort of way, mine stayed resolutely dry. There was hardly a trace of the older brother with whom I had shared so much; he was fat now, his features lost in a shapeless dough, his nose reddened, his cheeks crack-glazed with broken veins, his smile vacillating. In place of what I once felt for him-the hero worship of the big brother who in my mind could do anything, climb the highest tree, brave wild bees to steal their honey, swim right across the Loire at its broadest point-there was nothing but a faint nostalgia colored with contempt. All that was such a long time ago, after all. The fat man at the door was a stranger.
At first they were clever. They asked for nothing. They were concerned for me living alone, gave me presents-a food processor, shocked that I didn’t already have one, a winter coat, a radio-offered to take me out… Even invited me to their restaurant once, a big barn of a place with gingham-print faux-marble tables and neon signs and dried starfish and brightly colored plastic crabs wreathed in fisherman’s netting on the walls. I commented, rather diffidently, on the décor.
“Well, Mamie, it’s what you’d call kitsch,” explained Laure kindly, patting my hand. “I don’t suppose you’re interested in things like that, but believe me, in Paris, this is very fashionable.”
She leveled her teeth at me. She has very white, very large teeth, and her hair is the color of fresh paprika. She and Yannick often touch and kiss each other in public. I have to say it all rather embarrassed me. The meal was… modern, I suppose. I’m no judge of such things. Some kind of salad in a bland dressing, lots of little vegetables cut to look like flowers. Might have been some endive in there, but mostly just plain old lettuce leaves and radishes and carrots in fancy shapes. Then a piece of hake (a nice piece, I have to say, but very small) with a white wine shallot sauce and a piece of mint on top-don’t ask me why. Then a sliver of pear tartlet fussed over with chocolate sauce, dusted sugar, chocolate curls. Looking furtively at the menu, I noticed a great deal of self-congratulatory stuff along the line of “a nougatine of assorted candies on a mouthwatering bed of wafer-thin pastry, bound with thick dark chocolate and served with a tangy apricot coulis.” Sounded like a plain old florentine to me, and when I saw it, it looked no bigger than a five-franc piece. You’d have thought Moses brought it down from the mountain, to read what they’d put about it. And the prices! Five times the price of my most expensive menu, and that was without the wine. Course, I didn’t pay for any of it. But I was beginning to think that all the same, there might be a hidden price in all this sudden attention.
Two months later came the first proposal. A thousand francs to me if I would give them my recipe for paëlla antillaise and allow them to put it on their menu. Mamie Framboise’s paëlla antillaise, as mentioned in Hôte amp; Cuisine (July 1992) by Jules Lemarchand. At first I thought it was a joke. A delicate blend of freshly caught seafood subtly melded with green bananas, pineapple, muscatels and saffron rice… I laughed. Didn’t they have enough recipes of their own?
“Don’t laugh, Mamie.” Yannick was almost curt, his bright black eyes very close to mine. “I mean, Laure and I would be so grateful…”
He gave a wide, open smile.
“Now don’t be coy, Mamie.” I wished they wouldn’t call me that. Laure put her cool bare arm around me. “I’d make sure everyone knew it was your recipe.”
I relented. I don’t actually mind giving out my recipes; after all, I’ve given enough out already to people in Les Laveuses. I’d give them the paëlla antillaise for nothing, plus anything else they took a shine to, but on condition that they left Mamie Framboise off the menu. I’d had one narrow escape. I wasn’t going to court more attention.
They agreed so quickly to my demands and with so little argument. And three weeks later the recipe for Mamie Framboise’s paëlla antillaise appeared in Hôte amp; Cuisine, flanked by a gushing article by Laure Dessanges. “I hope to be able to bring you more of Mamie Framboise’s country recipes soon,” she promised. “Till then, you can taste them for yourself at Aux Délices Dessanges, Rue des Romarins, Angers.”
I suppose they never imagined that I would actually read the article. Perhaps they thought that I hadn’t meant what I’d told them. When I spoke to them about it they were apologetic, like children caught out in some endearing prank. The dish was already proving extremely successful, and there were plans for an entire Mamie Framboise section of the menu, including my couscous à la provençale, my cassoulet trois haricots and Mamie’s Famous Pancakes.
“You see, Mamie,” explained Yannick winningly. “The beauty of it is that we’re not even expecting you to do anything. Just to be yourself. To be natural.”
“I could run a column in the magazine,” added Laure. “”Mamie Framboise Advises,“ something like that. Of course, you wouldn’t need to write it. I’d do all that.”
She beamed at me, as if I were some child who needed reassurance.
They’d brought Cassis with them again, and he too was beaming, though he looked confused, as if this was all a little too much for him.
“But I told you.” I kept my voice level, hard, to keep it from trembling. “I told you before. I don’t want any of this. I don’t want to be a part of it.”
Cassis looked at me, bewildered.
“But it’s such a good chance for my son,” he pleaded. “Think what the publicity might do for him.”
“What my father means,” he amended hastily, “is that we could all benefit from the situation. The possibilities are endless if the thing catches on. We could market Mamie Framboise jams, Mamie Framboise biscuits… Of course, Mamie, you’d have a substantial percentage…”
I shook my head.
“You’re not listening,” I said in a louder voice. “I don’t want publicity. I don’t want a percentage. I’m not interested.”
Yannick and Laure exchanged glances.
“And if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking,” I said sharply, “that you might just as easily do it without my consent-after all, a name and a photograph’s all you really need-then listen to this. If I hear of one more so-called Mamie Framboise recipe appearing in that magazine-in any magazine-then I’ll be on the phone to the editor of that magazine that very day. I’ll sell him the rights to every recipe I’ve got. Hell, I’ll give them to him for free.”
I was out of breath, my heart hammering with rage and fear. But no one railroads Mirabelle Dartigen’s daughter. They knew I meant what I said too. I could see it in their faces.
Helplessly, they protested:
“And stop calling me Mamie!”
“Let me talk to her.” That was Cassis, rising with difficulty from his chair.
I noticed that age had shrunk him; had softly sunk him into himself, like a failed soufflé. Even that small effort caused him to wheeze painfully.
“In the garden.”
Sitting on a fallen tree trunk beside the disused well I felt an odd sense of doubling, as if the old Cassis might pull aside the fat-man’s mask from his face and reappear as before, intense, reckless and wild.
“Why are you doing this, Boise?” he demanded. “Is it because of me?
I shook my head slowly.
“This has nothing to do with you,” I told him. “Or Yannick.” I jerked my head at the farmhouse. “You notice I managed to get the old farm fixed up.”
“Never saw why you’d want to, myself,” he said. “I wouldn’t touch the place. Gives me the shivers just to think of you living here.” Then he gave me a strange look, knowing, almost sharp. “But it’s very like you to do it.” He smiled. “You always were her favorite, Boise. You even look like her nowadays.”
“You won’t talk me round,” I said flatly.
“Now you’re beginning to sound like her too.” His voice, complex with love, guilt, hate. “ Boise…”
I looked at him.
“Someone had to remember her,” I told him. “And I knew it wasn’t going to be you.”
He made a helpless gesture.
“But here, in Les Laveuses…”
“No one knows who I am,” I said. “No one makes the connection.” I grinned suddenly. “You know, Cassis, to most people, all old ladies look pretty much the same.”
“And you think Mamie Framboise would change that.”
“I know it would.”
“You always were a good liar,” he observed casually. “That’s another thing you got from her. The capacity to hide. Me, I’m wide open.”
He flung his arms wide to illustrate.
“Good for you,” I said indifferently. He even believed it himself.
“You’re a good cook, I’ll give you that.” He stared over my shoulder at the orchard, the trees heavy with ripening fruit. “She’d have liked that. To know you’d kept things going. You’re so like her…” he repeated slowly, not a compliment but a statement of fact, some distaste, some awe.
“She left me her book,” I told him. “The one with the recipes in it. The album.”
His eyes widened.
“She did? Well, you were her favorite.”
“I don’t know why you keep saying that,” I said impatiently. “If ever Mother had a favorite it was Reinette, not me. You remember-”
“She told me herself,” he explained. “Said that of the three of us you were the only one with any sense or any guts. There’s more of me in that sly little bitch than the pair of you ten times over. That’s what she said.”
It sounded like her. Her voice in his, clear and sharp as glass. She must have been angry with him, in one of her rages. It was rare that she struck any of us, but God!.. her tongue.
“It was the way she said it too,” he told me softly. “So cold and dry. With that curious look in her eyes, as if it was a kind of test. As if she was waiting to see what I’d do next.”
“And what did you do?”
“I cried, of course. I was only nine.”
Of course he would, I told myself. That was always his way. Too sensitive beneath his wildness. He used to run away from home regularly, sleeping out in the woods or in the tree house, knowing that Mother would not whip him. Secretly she encouraged his misbehavior, because it looked like defiance. It looked like strength. Me, I’d have spat in her face.
“Tell me, Cassis”-the idea came to me in a rush and I was suddenly almost out of breath with excitement-“Did Mother-do you ever remember if she spoke Italian? Or Portuguese? Some foreign language…”
Cassis looked puzzled, shook his head.
“Are you sure? In her album-”
I explained about the pages of foreign writing, the secret pages I had never learned to decipher.
“Let me see.”
We looked over it together, Cassis fingering the stiff yellow leaves with reluctant fascination. I noticed he avoided touching the writing, though he often fingered the other things, the photographs, the pressed flowers, butterflies’ wings, pieces of cloth stuck to the pages.
“My God,” he said in a low voice. “I never had any idea she’d made something like this.” He looked up at me. “And you say you weren’t her favorite.”
At first he seemed more interested in the recipes than anything else. Flicking through the album, his fingers seemed to have retained some of their old deftness.
“Tarte mirabelle aux amandes,” he whispered. “Tourteau fromage Clafoutis aux cerises rouges. I remember these!” His enthusiasm was suddenly very young, very like the old Cassis. “Everything’s here,” he said softly. “Everything.”
I pointed at one of the foreign passages.
Cassis studied it for a moment or two, and then began to laugh.
“That’s not Italian,” he told me. “Don’t you remember what this is?” He seemed to find the whole thing very funny, rocking and wheezing. Even his ears shook, big old-man’s ears like blue-cap mushrooms. “This is the language Dad invented. ”Bilini-enverlini,“ he used to call it. Don’t you remember? He used to speak it all the time…”
I tried to recall. I was seven when he died. There must be something left, I told myself. But there was so little. Everything swallowed up into a great hungry throat of darkness. I can remember my father, but only in snatches. A smell of moths and tobacco from his big old coat. The Jerusalem artichokes he alone liked, and which we all had to eat once a week. How I’d once accidentally sunk a fishhook through the webby part of my hand between finger and thumb, and his arms around me, his voice telling me to be brave… I remember his face through photographs, all in sepia. And at the back of my mind, something-a remote something-disgorged by the darkness. Father jabbering to us in nonsense talk, grinning, Cassis laughing, myself laughing without really understanding the joke and Mother, for once, far away, safely out of earshot, one of her headaches perhaps, an unexpected holiday…
“I remember something,” I said at last.
He explained then, patiently. A language of inverted syllables, reversed words, nonsense prefixes and suffixes. Ini tnawini inoti plainexini. I want to explain. Minini toni nierus niohwni inoti. I’m not sure who to.
Strangely enough Cassis seemed uninterested by my mother’s secret writings. His gaze lingered over the recipes. The rest was dead. The recipes were something he could understand, touch, taste. I could feel his discomfort at standing too close to me, as if my similarity to her might infect him too.
“If my son could only see all these recipes-” he said in a low voice.
“Don’t tell him,” I said sharply.
I was beginning to know Yannick. The less he learned about us, the better.
“Of course not. I promise.”
And I believed him. It goes to show that I’m not as like my mother as he thought. I trusted him, God help me, and for a while it seemed as if he’d kept his promise. Yannick and Laure kept their distance, Mamie Framboise vanished from view and summer rolled into autumn, dragging a soft train of dead leaves.
Yannick says he saw Old Mother today.
He came running back from the river half wild with excitement and babbling. He’d forgotten his fish on the verge in his haste, amp; I snapped at him for wasting time. He looked at me with that sad helplessness in his eyes, amp; I thought he was going to say something, but he didn’t. I suppose he feels ashamed. I feel hard inside, frozen. I want to say something, but I’m not sure what it is. Bad luck to see Old Mother, everyone says, but we’ve had enough of that already. Perhaps that’s why I am what I am.
I took my time over Mother’s album. Part of it was fear. Of what I might find out, perhaps. Of what I might be forced to remember. Part of it was that the narrative was confused, the order of events deliberately and expertly shuffled, like a clever card trick. I barely remembered the day of which she had spoken, though I dreamed of it later. The handwriting, though neat, was obsessively small, giving me terrible headaches if I studied it for too long. In this too I am like her. I remember her headaches quite clearly, so often preceded by what Cassis used to refer to as her “turns.” They had worsened when I was born, he told me. He was the only one of us old enough to remember her before.
Below a recipe for mulled cider, she writes:
I can remember what it was like. To be in the light. To be whole. It was like that for a time, before C. was born. I try to remember how it was to be so young. If only we’d stayed away, I tell myself. Never come back to Les Laveuses. Y. tries to help. But there’s no love in it any more. He’s afraid of me now, afraid of what I might do. To him. To the children. There’s no sweetness in suffering, whatever people might think It eats away everything in the end Y. stays for the sake of the children. I should be grateful. He could leave, amp; no one would think the worse of him for it. After all, he was born here.
Never one to give in to her complaints, she bore the pain for as long as she could before retiring to her darkened room while we padded silently, like wary cats, outside. Every six months or so she would suffer a really serious attack, which would leave her prostrate for days. Once, when I was very young, she collapsed on the way back from the well, crumpling forward over her bucket, a wash of liquid staining the dry path in front of her, her straw hat slipping sideways to show her open mouth, her staring eyes. I was in the kitchen garden gathering herbs, alone. My first thought was that she was dead. Her silence, the black hole of her mouth against the taut yellow skin of her face, her eyes like ball bearings. I put down my basket very slowly and walked toward her.
The path seemed oddly warped beneath my feet, as if I was wearing someone else’s glasses, and I stumbled a little. My mother was lying on her side. One leg was splayed out, the dark skirt hiked up a little to show boot and stocking. Her mouth gaped hungrily. I felt very calm.
She’s dead, I told myself. The rush of feeling that came in the wake of the thought was so intense that for a moment I was unable to identify it. A bright comet’s tail of sensation, prickling at my armpits and flipping my stomach like a pancake. Terror, grief, confusion… I looked for them inside myself and found no trace of them. Instead, a burst of poison fireworks that filled my head with light. I looked flatly at my mother’s corpse and felt relief, hope and an ugly, primitive joy.
I feel hard inside, frozen.
I know, I know. I can’t expect you to understand how I felt. It sounds grotesque to me too, remembering how it was, wondering whether this is not another false memory… Of course, it might have been shock. People experience strange things under the effects of shock. Even children. Especially children, the prim, secret savages we were. Locked in our mad world between the Lookout Post and the river, with the Standing Stones keeping watch over our covert rituals… But it was joy I felt all the same.
I stood beside her. The dead eyes stared at me, unblinking. I wondered whether I ought to close them. There was something disturbing about their round, fishy gaze that reminded me of Old Mother, the day I finally nailed her up. A thread of drool glistened at her lips. I moved a little closer…
Her hand shot out and grabbed me by the ankle. Not dead, no; but waiting, her eyes bright with mean intelligence. Her mouth worked painfully, enunciating every word with glassy precision. I closed my eyes to stop myself from screaming.
“Listen. Get my stick.” Her voice was grating, metallic. “Get it. Kitchen. Quickly.”
I stared at her, her hand still clutching my bare ankle.
“Felt it coming this morning,” she said tonelessly. “Knew it was going to be a big one. Only saw half the clock. Smelt oranges. Get the stick. Help me.”
“I thought you were going to die.” My voice sounded eerily like hers, clear and hard. “I thought you were dead.”
One side of her mouth hitched, and she made a low yarking sound, which I eventually recognized as laughter. I ran to the kitchen with that sound in my ears, found the stick, a heavy piece of twisted hawthorn that she used to reach the higher branches of the fruit trees, and brought it to her. She was already on her knees, pushing against the ground with her hands. From time to time she shook her head with a sharp, impatient gesture, as if plagued by wasps.
“Good.” Her voice was thick, like a mouthful of mud. “Now leave me. Tell your father. I’m going… to… my room.” Then, jerking herself savagely to her feet with the stick, swaying, keeping upright with a simple effort of will: “I said, go away!”
And she struck at me clumsily with one clawing hand, almost losing balance, stubbing at the path with her stick. I ran then, turning back only when I was well out of her range, ducking down behind a stand of red currants to watch her staggering toward the house, dragging her feet in great loops in the dirt behind her.
It was the first time I became truly aware of my mother’s affliction. My father explained it to us later, the business with the clock and the oranges, while she lay in darkness. We understood little of what he told us. Our mother had bad spells, he said patiently, headaches that were so terrible that sometimes she didn’t even know what she was doing. Had we ever had sunstroke? Felt that woozy, unreal feeling, imagined that objects were closer than they were, sounds louder? We looked at him, uncomprehending. Only Cassis, nine then to my four, seemed to understand.
“She does things,” said my father. “Things she doesn’t really remember afterward. Because of the bad spells.”
We stared at him solemnly. Bad spells.
My youthful mind associated the phrase with stories of witches. The gingerbread house. The Seven Swans. I imagined my mother lying on her bed in the dark, eyes open, strange words sliding between her lips like eels. I imagined her looking through the walls and seeing me, seeing right inside me and rocking with that dreadful, yarking laughter… Sometimes Father slept on the kitchen chair when Mother had her bad spells. And one morning we had got up to find him bathing his forehead in the kitchen sink, and the water full of blood… An accident, he told us then. A stupid accident. But I remember seeing blood, glossy on the clean terra-cotta tiles. A length of stove wood had been left on the table. There was blood on that too.
“She wouldn’t hurt us, would she, Papa?”
He looked at me for a moment. A second’s hesitation, maybe two. And in his eyes a look of calculation, as if deciding how much to tell.
Then he smiled. “Of course not, sweetheart.” What a question, his smile said.
“She wouldn’t ever hurt you.”
And he folded me into his arms and I smelled tobacco and moths and the biscuity smell of old sweat. But I never forgot that hesitation, that measuring look. For a second he had considered it. Turned it over in his mind, wondering how much to tell us. Perhaps he’d thought that he had time, plenty of time to explain to us when we were older.
Later that night I heard sounds from my parents’ room; shouting, breaking glass. I got up early to find that my father had slept all night in the kitchen. My mother got up late but cheery-as cheery as she ever was-singing to herself in a low tuneless voice as she stirred green tomatoes into her round copper jamming pan, slipping me a handful of yellow gages from her apron pocket. Shyly, I asked her if she felt any better. She looked at me without comprehension, her face white and blank as a clean plate. I sneaked into her room later and found my father taping waxed paper over a broken windowpane. There was glass on the floor from the window and the face of the mantel clock, now lying face-down on the boards. A reddish smear had dried against the wallpaper just above the bedstead, and my eyes sought it with a kind of fascination. I could see the five commas of her fingertips where they had stabbed at the paper, and the blot that was her palm. When I looked again a few hours later, the wall had been scrubbed clean and the room was tidy again. Neither of my parents mentioned the incident, both behaving as if nothing untoward had happened. But after that, my father kept our bedroom door locked and our windows bolted at night, almost as if he were afraid of something breaking in.
When my father died I felt little true grief. When I looked for sorrow I found only a hard place inside myself, like a stone in a fruit. I tried to tell myself that I would never see his face again, but by that time I had almost forgotten it as it was. Instead he had become a kind of icon, rolling eyes like a plaster saint’s, his uniform buttons gleaming mellowly. I tried to imagine him lying dead on the battlefield, lying broken in some mass grave, exploded by the mine that blew up in his face… I imagined horrors, but they were unreal to me as nightmares. Cassis took it worst. He ran away for two days after we got the news, finally returning exhausted, hungry and covered in mosquito bites. He’d been sleeping out on the other side of the Loire, where the woods tail off into marshland. I think he’d had some mad idea of joining the army, but had got lost instead, going round in circles for hours until he’d found the Loire again. He tried to bluff it out, to pretend he’d had adventures, but for once I didn’t believe him.
After that he took to fighting other boys, and often came home with torn clothes and blood under his fingernails. He spent hours in the woods alone. He never cried for Father, and took pride in that, even swearing at Philippe Hourias when he once tried to offer comfort. Reinette, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy the attention Father’s death brought her. People called round with presents, or patted her head if they met her in the village. In the café the matter of our future-and our mother’s-was discussed in low, earnest voices. My sister learned to make her eyes brim at will, and cultivated a brave, orphaned smile that earned her gifts of sweets and the reputation of being the sensitive one in the family.
My mother never spoke of him after his death. It was as if Father had never lived with us at all. The farm went on without him, if anything with even greater efficiency than before. We dug up the rows of Jerusalem artichokes, which only he had liked, and replaced them with asparagus and purple broccoli, which swayed and whispered in the wind. I began to have bad dreams in which I was lying underground, rotting, overwhelmed by the stench of my own decay. I drowned in the Loire, feeling the ooze of the riverbed crawl over my dead flesh, and when I reached out for help I felt hundreds of other bodies there with me, rocking gently with the undercurrent, crammed shoulder to shoulder against one another, some whole, some in pieces, faceless, grinning brokenly from dislocated jaws and rolling dead eyes in garish welcome… I awoke from these dreams sweating and screaming, but Mother never came. Instead Cassis and Reine came to me, impatient and kind by turns. Sometimes they pinched and threatened me in low, exasperated voices. Sometimes they took me in their arms and rocked me back to sleep. Sometimes Cassis would tell stories and Reine-Claude and I would both listen, eyes wide in the moonlight; stories of giants and witches and man-eating roses and mountains and dragons masquerading as men… Oh, Cassis was a fine storyteller in those days, and though he was sometimes unkind and often made fun of my night terrors, it is the stories I remember most now, and his eyes shining.
With Father gone, we grew to know Mother’s bad spells almost as well as he had. As they began she would speak with a certain vagueness, and she would suffer tension around the temples, which she would betray by impatient little pecking movements of the head. Sometimes she would reach for something-a spoon, a knife-and miss, slapping her hand repeatedly against the table or the sink top as if feeling for the object. Sometimes she would ask, “What’s the time?” even though the big round kitchen clock was just in front of her. And always at these times, the same sharp, suspicious question:
“Has any of you brought oranges into the house?”
We shook our heads silently. Oranges were scarce; we’d only tasted them occasionally. On the market in Angers we might see them sometimes: fat Spanish oranges with their thick dimpled rind; finer-grained blood oranges from the South, cut open to reveal their grazed purple flesh… Our mother always kept away from these stalls, as if the sight of them sickened her. Once, when a friendly woman at the market gave us an orange to share, our mother refused to let us into the house until we had washed, scrubbed under our nails and rubbed our hands with lemon balm and lavender, even then claimed she could smell the orange oil on us-left the windows open for two days until it finally vanished. Of course, the oranges of her bad spells were purely imaginary. The scent heralded her migraines, and within hours she was lying in darkness with a lavender-soaked handkerchief across her face and her pills to hand beside her. The pills, I later learned, were morphine.
She never explained. What information we gleaned was gathered from long observation. When she felt a migraine approaching she simply withdrew to her room without giving any reason, leaving us to our own devices. So it was that we viewed these spells of hers as a kind of holiday-lasting from a couple of hours to a whole day or even two-during which we ran wild. They were wonderful days for us, days that I wished would last forever, swimming in the Loire or catching crayfish in the shallows, exploring the woods, making ourselves sick with cherries or plums or green gooseberries, fighting, sniping at one another with potato rifles and decorating the Standing Stones with the spoils of our adventuring.
The Standing Stones were the remains of an old jetty, long since swept away by the currents. Five stone pillars, one shorter than the rest, protruding from the water. A metal staple stuck out from the side of each, bleeding tears of rust into the rotten stone, where boards had once been fixed. It was on these metal protrusions that we hung our trophies; barbaric garlands of fish heads and flowers, signs lettered in secret codes, magical stones, driftwood sculptures. The last pillar stood well into the deep water at a point where the current was especially strong, and it was here we hid our treasure chest. This was a tin box wrapped in oilcloth and weighted with a piece of chain. The chain was secured to a rope, which in its turn was tied to the pillar we all referred to as the Treasure Stone. To retrieve the treasure it was necessary first to swim to the last pillar-no mean feat-then, holding on to the pillar with one arm, to haul up the sunken chest, detach it and swim with it back to the shore. It was accepted that only Cassis could do this. The “treasure” consisted mainly of things no adult would recognize as being of value. The potato guns. Chewing gum, wrapped in greased paper to make it last. A stick of barley sugar. Three cigarettes. Some coins in a battered purse. Actresses’ photographs (these, like the cigarettes, belonged to Cassis). A few issues of an illustrated magazine specializing in lurid stories.
Sometimes Paul Hourias came with us on what Cassis called our “hunting trips,” though he was never fully initiated into our secrets. I liked Paul. His father, Jean-Marc, sold bait on the Angers road and his mother took in mending to make ends meet. He was an only child of parents old enough to be his grandparents, and much of his time was spent keeping out of their way. He lived as I longed to live; in summer he spent whole nights out in the woods without arousing any concern from his family. He knew where to find mushrooms on the forest floor and to make whistles out of willow twigs. His hands were deft and clever, but he was often awkward and slow in speech, and when adults were near he stuttered. Though he was close to Cassis’s age, he did not go to school, but helped instead on his uncle’s farm, milking the cows and bringing them to and from the pasture. He was patient with me too, more so than Cassis, never making fun of my ignorance or scorning me because I was small. Of course, he’s old now. But I sometimes think that of the four of us, he is the one who has aged the least.
It was already, in early June, promising to be a hot summer and the Loire was low and surly with quicksand and landslides. There were snakes too, more than usual, flat-headed brown adders that lurked in the cool mud in the shallows. Jeannette Gaudin was bitten by one of these as she paddled one dry afternoon, and they buried her a week later in Saint-Benedict’s churchyard, beneath a little plaster cross and an angel. Beloved Daughter…1934–1942. I was a year older than she was.
Suddenly I felt as if a gulf had opened beneath me, a hot, deep hole like a giant mouth. If Jeannette could die, then so could I. So could anyone. Cassis looked down from the height of his fourteen years in some scorn: “You expect people to die in wartime, stupid. Children too. People die all the time.”
I tried to explain and found that I could not. Soldiers dying — even my own father — that was one thing. Even civilians killed in bombing, though there had been little enough of that in Les Laveuses. But this was different. My nightmares worsened. I spent hours watching the river with my fishing net, catching the evil brown snakes in the shallows, smashing their flat clever heads with a stone and nailing their bodies to the exposed roots at the riverbank. A week of this and there were twenty or more drooping lankly from the roots, and the stink — fishy and oddly sweet, like something bad fermented — was overwhelming. Cassis and Reinette were still at school — they both went to the collège in Angers — and it was Paul who found me with a clothespin on my nose to keep out the stench, doggedly stirring the muddy soup of the verge with my net.
He was wearing shorts and sandals, and held his dog, Malabar, on a leash made of string.
I gave him a look of indifference and turned back to the water. Paul sat down next to me. Malabar flopped onto the path, panting. I ignored them both. At last Paul spoke.
I shrugged. “Nothing. I’m just fishing, that’s all.”
“For’s-snakes.” His voice was carefully uninflected.
I nodded, rather defiantly.
“So nothing.” He patted Malabar’s head. “You can do what you like.”
A pause that crawled between us like a racing snail.
“I wonder if it hurts,” I said at last.
He considered it for a moment as if he knew what I meant, then shook his head.
“They say the poison gets into your blood and makes you go numb. Just like going to sleep.”
He watched me noncommittally, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
“C–Cassis sez that Jeannette Gaudin musta seen Old Mother,” he said at last. “You know. That’s why the snake b-bit her. Old Mother’s curse.”
I shook my head. Cassis, the avid storyteller and reader of lurid adventure magazines (with titles like The Mummy’s Curse or Barbarian Swarm), was always saying things like that.
“I don’t think Old Mother even exists,” I said defiantly. “I’ve never seen her, anyway. Besides, there’s no such thing as a curse. Everyone knows that.”
Paul looked at me with sad, indignant eyes.
“Course there is,” he said. “And she’s down there all right. M-my dad saw her once, way back before I was born. B-biggest pike you ever saw. Week later, he broke his leg falling off of his b-bike. Even your dad got-”
He broke off, dropping his eyes in sudden confusion.
“Not my dad,” I said sharply. “My dad was killed in battle.”
I had a sudden, vivid picture of him marching, a single link in an endless line that moved relentlessly toward a gaping horizon.
Paul shook his head.
“She’s there,” he said stubbornly. “Right at the deepest point of the Loire. Might be forty years old, maybe fifty. Pikes live a long time, the old uns. She’s black as the mud she lives in. And she’s clever, crazy-clever. She’d take a bird sitting on the water as easy as she’d gulp a piece of bread. My dad sez she’s not a pike at all but a ghost, a murderess, damned to watch the living forever. That’s why she hates us.”
This was a long speech for Paul, and in spite of myself I listened with interest. The river abounded with stories and old wives’ tales, but the story of Old Mother was the most enduring. The giant pike, her lip pierced and bristling with the hooks of anglers who had tried to catch her. In her eye, an evil intelligence. In her belly, a treasure of unknown origin and inestimable worth.
“My dad sez that if anyone was to catch her, she’d hafta give you a wish,” said Paul. “Sez he’d settle for a million francs and a look at that Greta Garbo’s underwear.”
He grinned sheepishly. That’s grownups for you, his smile seemed to say.
I considered this. I told myself I didn’t believe in curses or wishes for free. But the image of the old pike wouldn’t let go.
“If she’s there, we could catch her,” I told him abruptly. “It’s our river. We could.”
It was suddenly clear to me; not only possible, but an obligation. I thought of the dreams that had plagued me ever since Father died; dreams of drowning, of rolling blind in the black surf of the swollen Loire with the clammy feel of dead flesh all around me, of screaming and feeling my scream forced back into my throat, of drowning in myself. Somehow the pike personified all that, and though my thinking was certainly not as analytical as that, something in me was suddenly certain-certain-that if I were to catch Old Mother, something might happen. What it might be I would not articulate even to myself. But something, I thought in mounting, incomprehensible excitement. Something.
Paul looked at me in bewilderment.
“Catch her?” he repeated. “What for?”
“It’s our river,” I said stubbornly. “It shouldn’t be in our river.”
What I wanted to say was that the pike offended me in some secret, visceral way, much more so than the snakes: its slyness, its age, its evil complacency. But I could think of no way to say it. It was a monster.
“‘Sides, you’d never do it,” Paul went on. “I mean, people have tried. Grownup people. With lines and nets an’ all. It bites through the nets. And the lines… it breaks them right snap down the middle. It’s strong, see. Stronger than either of us.”
“Doesn’t have to be,” I insisted. “We could trap it.”
“You’d hafta be bloody clever to trap Old Mother,” said Paul stolidly.
“So?” I was beginning to be angry now, and I faced him with fists and face both clenched in frustration. “So we’ll be clever. Cassis and me and Reinette and you. All four of us. Unless you’re scared.”
“I’m not’s-scared, but it’s im-im-impossible.”
He was stuttering again, as he always did when he felt under pressure.
I looked at him.
“Well, I’ll do it on my own if you won’t help. And I’ll catch the old pike too. You just wait.”
For some reason my eyes were stinging. I wiped them furtively with the heel of my hand. I could see Paul watching me with a curious expression, but he said nothing. Viciously, I poked at the hot shallows with my net.
“‘S only an old fish,” I said. Poke. “I’ll get it and I’ll hang it on the Standing Stones.” Poke. “Right there.” I pointed at the Treasure Stone with my dripping net. “Right there,” I said again in a low voice, spitting on the ground to prove that what I said was true.
My mother smelt oranges all through that hot month. As often as once a week, though it was not every time that a bad spell ensued. While Cassis and Reinette were at school I ran to the river, mostly on my own but sometimes accompanied by Paul, when he could get away from his chores on the farm.
I had reached an awkward age, and separated from my siblings for most of those long days I grew bold and defiant, running away when my mother gave me work to do, missing meals and coming home late and dirty, my clothes streaked yellow with riverbank dust, hair untied and plastered back with sweat. I must have been born confrontational, but that summer I grew more so than I had ever been. My mother and I stalked each other like cats staking out their territory. Every touch was a spark that hissed with static. Every word was a potential insult, every conversation a minefield. At mealtimes we sat face-to-face, glowering over our soup and pancakes. Cassis and Reine flanked us like frightened courtiers, big-eyed and silent.
I don’t know why we pitted ourselves against each other; maybe it was the simple fact that I was growing up. The woman who had terrified me during my infancy now took on a different light. I could see the gray in her hair, the lines bracketing her mouth. I could see now — with a flash of contempt — that she was only an aging woman whose bad spells sent her helpless to her room.
And she baited me. Deliberately-or so I thought. Now I think that maybe she couldn’t help it, that it was as much in her unhappy nature to bait me as it was in mine to defy her. It seemed during that summer that every time she opened her mouth it was to criticize. My manners, my dress, my appearance, my opinions. Everything, according to her, was reprehensible. I was slovenly: I left my clothes unfolded at the foot of my bed when I went to sleep. I slouched when I walked: I would become a hunchback if I wasn’t careful. I was greedy, stuffing myself with fruit from the orchard. Otherwise I had little appetite: I was growing thin, scrawny. Why couldn’t I be more like Reine-Claude? At twelve, my sister had already ripened. Soft and sweet as dark honey, with amber eyes and autumn hair, she was every storybook heroine, every screen goddess I had ever imagined and admired. When we were younger she would let me plait her hair, and I would twist flowers and berries into the thick strands and circle her head with convolvulus so that she looked like a woodland sprite. Now there was something almost adult about her composure, her passive sweetness. Next to her I looked like a frog, my mother told me, an ugly skinny little frog with my wide sullen mouth and my big hands and feet.
I remember one of those dinnertime conflicts in particular. I remember we had paupiettes, those little parcels of veal and minced pork tied with string and cooked in a thick stew of carrots, shallots, tomatoes in white wine. I looked into my plate with sullen disinterest. Reinette and Cassis looked at nothing, carefully detached.
My mother clenched her fists, infuriated by my silence. After my father’s death there was no one to temper her rage, and it was always close by, boiling under the surface. She seldom struck us-very unusual in those days, almost a freak-though it was not, I suspect, from any great sense of affection. Rather, she was afraid that, having begun, she might not be able to stop.
“Don’t slouch, for God’s sake.” Her voice was tart as an unripe gooseberry. “You know that if you slouch, you’ll end up staying that way.”
I gave her a quick, insolent look and put my elbows on the table.
“Elbows off the table!” she almost moaned. “Look at your sister. Look at her. Does she slouch? Does she behave like a sulky farmhand?”
It did not occur to me to resent Reinette. It was my mother I resented, and I showed it with every movement of my sly young body. I gave her every excuse to hound me. She wanted the clothes on the washing line hung by the hems: I hung them by the collars. The jars in the pantry had to have the labels facing the front: I turned them backward. I forgot to wash my hands before meals. I changed the order of the pans hanging on the kitchen wall, largest to smallest. I left the kitchen window open so that when she opened the door the draft would make it bang. I infringed a thousand of her personal rules, and she reacted to each trespass with the same bewildered rage. To her, those petty rules mattered because those were the things she used to control our world. Take them away and she was like the rest of us, orphaned and lost.
Of course, I didn’t know that then.
“You’re a hard little bitch, aren’t you?” she said at last, pushing away her plate. “Hard as nails.” There was neither hostility nor affection in her voice, merely a kind of cool disinterest. “I used to be like that,” she said. It was the first time I had ever heard her speak of her own childhood. “At your age.”
Her smile was stretched and mirthless. Impossible to imagine her ever being young. I stabbed at my paupiette in its congealing sauce.
“I always wanted to fight everybody too,” said my mother. “I would have sacrificed everything, hurt anyone to prove myself right. To win.” She looked at me intently, curiously, her black eyes like pinpricks in tar. “Contrary, that’s what you are. I knew from the moment you were born that’s what you were going to be. You started it all again, worse than ever. The way you screamed in the night and wouldn’t feed-and me lying awake with the doors closed and my head pounding.”
I did not answer. After a moment my mother laughed rather jeeringly and began to clear the dishes. It was the last time she spoke of the war between us, though that war was far from over.
The Lookout Post was a large elm on the near bank of the Loire. Half overhanging the water, a clutch of thick roots hanging down deep from the dry soil of the bank, it was easy to climb even for me, and from the higher branches I could see all of Les Laveuses. Cassis and Paul had built a primitive tree house there — a platform and some branches bent over to make a roof — but I was the one who spent the most time in the completed shelter. Reinette was reluctant to climb to the top, though the way had been made easier by means of a knotted rope, and Cassis rarely went there any more, so I often had the place to myself. I went there to think and to watch the road, where sometimes I could see the Germans in their jeeps-or more often, motorcycles-passing by.
Of course, there was little to interest the Germans in Les Laveuses. There were no barracks, no school, no public buildings for them to occupy. They settled in Angers instead, with only a few patrols around the neighboring villages, and all I saw of them — except for the vehicles on the road — were the groups of soldiers sent every week to requisition produce from the Hourias farm. Our own was less frequented: we had no cows, only a few pigs and goats. Our main source of income was fruit, and the season had barely begun. A couple of soldiers came, halfheartedly, once a month, but the best of our supplies were well hidden, and Mother always sent me out into the orchard when the soldiers came. Even so I was curious about the gray uniforms, sometimes sitting in the Lookout Post and shooting imaginary rockets at the jeeps as they sped by. I was not truly hostile — none of the children were. We were merely curious, repeating the insults our parents taught us — filthy Boche, Nazi swine — out of an instinct for mimicry. I had no idea of what was happening in occupied France; little enough notion of where Berlin even was.
Once they had come to requisition a violin from Denis Gaudin, Jeannette’s grandfather. Jeannette told me about it just a week before she died. It was getting dark and the blackout shutters were already in place, when she heard a knocking at the door. She opened it and saw a German officer. In polite though laborious French he addressed her grandfather.
“Monsieur, I… understand… you have… a violin. I… need it.”
A few of the officers, it seemed, had decided to form a military band. I suppose even Germans needed some way of passing the time.
Old Denis Gaudin looked at him.
“A violin, mein Herr, is like a woman,” he replied pleasantly. “Not to be lent out.”
And very gently he closed the door. There was a silence as the officer digested this. Jeannette looked up at her grandfather with wide eyes. Then, outside, the sound of the German officer laughing and repeating:
“Wie eine Frau! Wie eine Frau!”
The German officer never came back, and Denis kept his violin until much later, almost until the end of the war.
For a time that summer, however, my main interest was not the Germans. I spent most of my waking hours-and many of my sleeping-devising ways of trapping Old Mother. I studied the various techniques of fishing. Line for eels, pots for crays, dragnets, straight nets, live bait and skim lures. I went to Jean-Marc Hourias and plagued him until he had told me all he knew about bait. I dug bloodworms from the sides of the banks and learned to keep them in my mouth for warmth. I trapped bluebottles and threaded them on lines bristling with fishhooks like strange tinsel. I made traps from cages of willow and thread, baited with scraps. A single touch on one of the threads in the cage and it would spring shut, jerking the whole contraption out of the water as the bent branch underneath it was released. I stretched pieces of net across the narrower channels between the sandbanks. I left static lines baited with boluses of rotting meat hanging from the far bank. In this way I caught any number of perch, small bleaks, gudgeons, minnows and eels. Some I took home to eat and watched my mother prepare them. The kitchen was the now only neutral place in the house, a place of brief respite from our private war. I used to stand beside her, listening to her low monotone, and together we made her bouillabaisse angevine, the fish stew with red onions and thyme, and perch roasted in tinfoil with tarragon and wild mushrooms. Some of my catches I left at the Standing Stones in gaudy, stinking garlands: a warning and a challenge.
But Old Mother did not come. On Sundays, when Reine and Cassis were home from school, I would try to infuse them with my passion for the hunt. But since Reine-Claude’s admission to the collège earlier that year the two of them had become a race apart. Five years separated me from Cassis. From Reine, three. And yet they seemed closer than two years to each other, gilded with adulthood, so alike with their golden faces and high cheekbones that they might almost have been twins. They often talked together in secret whispers, secret laughter, naming friends I had never heard of, laughing at private jokes. Alien names punctuated their conversations. Monsieur Toupet. Madame Froussine. Mademoiselle Culourd. Cassis had nicknames for all his teachers and could mimic their habits, their voices to make Reine laugh. Other names, whispered under cover of darkness when I was asleep, seemed to be those of their friends. Heinemann. Leibniz. Schwartz. Laughter when these names were whispered, strange, spiteful laughter with a bright note of guilt and hysteria. They were names I did not recognize, foreign names, and when I asked about them, Cassis and Reine-Claude simply giggled and ran away, arm in arm, toward the orchard.
This elusiveness troubled me more than I could have imagined. They had become conspirators where before they were my equals. Suddenly all our shared activities had become childish to them. The Lookout Post, the Standing Stones, were mine alone. Reine-Claude claimed to be afraid to go fishing for fear of snakes. Instead she stayed in her room, brushing her hair into complicated styles and sighing over photographs of film actresses. Cassis listened with polite inattention to my excited plans, then made excuses to leave me on my own. A lesson to copy. Latin verbs to learn for Monsieur Toubon. I’d understand later, when I was older. They made every effort to keep me away from them. They made appointments with me that they did not keep, sending me across Les Laveuses on an imaginary errand, promising to meet me at the river then making for the forest alone, while I waited, angry tears burning my eyes. They pretended innocence when I challenged them, clapping sly hands to their mouths-Did we really say the big elm? I was so sure we agreed the second oak-and giggling when I stalked away.
They only went occasionally to the river to swim, Reine-Claude entering the water gingerly, and only in the deeper, clearer parts where snakes were unlikely to venture. I sought their attention, making extravagant dives from the bank and swimming underwater for such long stretches that Reine-Claude would scream that I was drowned. Even so I felt them slipping from me little by little, and loneliness overwhelmed me.
Only Paul stayed loyal during this time. Though he was older than Reine-Claude and almost the same age as Cassis, he seemed younger, less sophisticated. He was inarticulate when they were there, smiling in agonized embarrassment when they talked about school. Paul could barely read, and his writing was the stilted, painful printing of a much younger child. He liked stories, though, and I would read to him from Cassis’s magazines when he came to the Lookout Post. We used to sit on the platform, he whittling at a piece of wood with his small knife while I read The Mummy’s Tomb or The Martian Invasion, half a loaf of bread on the board between us, from which we would occasionally cut a slice. Sometimes he brought a piece of rillettes wrapped in a sheet of waxed paper, or half a camembert. To our little feast, I would add a pocketful of strawberries or one of the goat’s cheeses rolled in ash that my mother called petits cendrés. From the Post I could see all my nets and traps, which I checked every hour, resetting them as necessary and removing the small fry.
“What’ll you wish for when you catch her?”
By now he believed implicitly that I would catch the old pike, and he spoke with a kind of reluctant awe.
“Dunno.” I took a bite of bread and rillettes. “There’s no point making plans till I’ve caught it. That might take time.”
It was time I was willing to take. Three weeks into June and my enthusiasm had not faltered. Quite the opposite. Even the indifference of Cassis and Reine-Claude only served to increase my stubbornness. Old Mother was a talisman in my mind, a slinking black talisman that, if I could only reach it, might put right everything which was skewed.
I’d show them. The day I caught Old Mother they’d all look at me in amazement. Cassis, Reine-and to see that look in my mother’s face, to make her see me, perhaps to clench her fists in rage… Or to smile with peculiar sweetness and open her arms…
But here my fantasy stopped; I dared not imagine further.
“‘Sides,” I said with studied languor. “I don’t believe in wishes. I told you that already.”
Paul looked cynical.
“If you don’t believe in wishes,” he pointed out, “then what’re you doing it for at all?”
I shook my head.
“Dunno,” I said at last. “Just for something to do, I expect.”
“That’s you, Boise,” he said between gusts of laughter. “That’s you all over, that is. Catch Old Mother for something to do!”
And he was off again, rolling alarmingly close to the edge of the platform in his incomprehensible hilarity until Malabar, tied with string at the foot of the tree, began to bark sharply and we fell silent before our cover was blown.
Soon after that, I found the lipstick under Reine-Claude’s mattress. A stupid place to hide it, really-anyone could have found it, even Mother-but Reinette was never imaginative. It was my turn to make the beds, and the thing must have worked its way under the bottom sheet, because that was where I found it, tucked between the lip of the mattress and the bedboard. At first I didn’t recognize it. Mother never used makeup. A small golden cylinder, like a stubby pen. I turned the cap, encountered resistance, opened. I was experimenting rather gingerly on my arm when I heard a gasp behind me and Reinette jerked me round. Her face was pale and contorted.
“Give me that!” she hissed. “That’s mine!”
She snatched the lipstick from my fingers and it fell to the floor, rolling under the bed. Quickly she scrabbled to retrieve it, her face flaring.
“Where did you get that?” I asked curiously. “Does Mother know you’ve got it?”
“None of your business,“ gasped Reinette, emerging from under the bed. ”You’ve no right to go snooping in my private things. And if you dare tell anyone-“
I grinned. “I might tell,” I told her. “And I might not. It just depends.”
She took a step forward, but I was almost as tall as she was, and though rage had made her reckless, she knew better than to try to fight me.
“Don’t tell,” she said in a wheedling voice. “I’ll go fishing with you this afternoon, if you like. We could go to the Lookout Post and read magazines.”
I shrugged. “Maybe. Where did you get it?”
Reinette looked at me.
“Promise you won’t tell.”
I spat in my hand. After a moment’s hesitation she followed suit. We sealed the bargain with a spit-clammy handshake.
“All right.” She sat down on the edge of the bed, legs curled underneath her. “It was at school. In spring. We had a Latin teacher there, Monsieur Toubon. Cassis calls him Monsieur Toupet because he looks as if he wears a wig. He was always getting at us. He was the one who made the whole class stay in that time. Everybody hated him.”
“A teacher gave it to you?” I was incredulous.
“No, stupid. Listen. You know the Boches requisitioned the lower and middle corridors and the rooms around the courtyard. You know, for their quarters. And their drilling.”
I’d heard this before. The old school, with its location near the center of Angers, its large classrooms and enclosed playgrounds, was ideal for their purposes. Cassis had told us about the Germans on maneuvers with their gray cow’s-head masks, how no one was allowed to watch and the shutters had to be closed around the courtyard at those times.
“Some of us used to creep in and watch them through a slit under one of the shutters,” said Reinette. “It was boring, really. Just a lot of marching up and down and shouting in German. Can’t see why it all has to be so secret.” Her mouth drooped in a moue of dissatisfaction. “Anyway, old Toupet caught us at it one day,” she continued. “Gave us all a big lecture, Cassis and me and… oh, people you wouldn’t know. Made us miss our free Thursday afternoon. Gave us a whole lot of extra Latin to do.” Her mouth twisted viciously. “I don’t know what makes him so holy anyhow. He was only coming to watch the Boches himself.” Reinette shrugged. “Anyway”-she continued in a lighter voice-“we managed to get him back eventually. Old Toupet lives in the collège-he has rooms next to the boys’ dorm-and Cassis looked in one day when Toupet was out, and what do you think?”
“He had a big radio in there, pushed under his bed. One of those long-wave contraptions.”
Reinette paused, looking suddenly uneasy.
I looked at the little gold stick between her fingers, trying to see the connection.
She smiled, an unpleasantly adult smile.
“I know we’re not supposed to have anything to do with the Boches. But you can’t avoid people all the time,” she said in a superior tone. “I mean, you see them at the gate, or going into Angers to the pictures…”
This was aprivilege I greatly envied Reine-Claude and Cassis-that on Thursdays they were allowed to cycle into the town center to the cinema or the café-and I pulled a face.
“Get on with it,” I said.
“I am,” complained Reinette. “God, Boise, you’re so impatient…” She touched her hair. “As I was saying, you’re bound to see Germans some of the time. And they’re not all bad.” That smile again. “Some of them can be quite nice. Nicer than old Toupet, anyway.”
I shrugged indifferently.
“So one of them gave you the lipstick,” I said with scorn.
Such a fuss over so little, I thought to myself. It was just like Reinette to get so excited about nothing at all.
“We told them-well, we just mentioned to one of them-about Toupet and his radio,” she said. For some reason she was flushed, her cheeks bright as peonies. “He gave us the lipstick, and some cigarettes for Cassis, and… well, all kinds of things.” She was speaking rapidly now, unstoppably, her eyes bright. “And later Yvonne Cressonnet said that she saw them come to old Toupet’s room, and they took the radio away, and he went with them, and now instead of Latin we have an extra geography lesson with Madame Lambert, and no one knows what’s happened to him!”
She leveled her gaze at me. I remember her eyes were almost gold, the color of boiling sugar syrup as it begins to turn.
I shrugged. “I don’t suppose anything happened,” I said reasonably. “I mean, they wouldn’t send an old man like that to the front just for having a radio.”
“No. Course they wouldn’t.” Her reply was too hasty. “Besides, he shouldn’t have had it in the first place, should he?”
I agreed he shouldn’t. It was against the rules. A teacher should have known that. Reine looked at the lipstick, turning it gently, lovingly in her hand.
“You won’t tell, then?” She stroked my arm gently. “You won’t, will you, Boise?”
I pulled away, rubbing my arm automatically where she had touched me. I never did like being petted.
“Do you and Cassis see these Germans often?” I questioned.
She shrugged. “Sometimes.”
“D’you tell them anything else?”
“No.” She spoke too quickly. “We just talk. Look, Boise, you won’t tell anyone, will you?”
I smiled. “Well, I might not. Not if you do something for me.”
She looked at me narrowly.
“What do you mean?”
“I’d like to go into Angers sometimes, with you and Cassis,” I said slyly. “To the pictures, and the café, and stuff…”
I paused for effect and she glared at me from eyes as bright and narrow as knives.
“Or,” I continued in a falsely holy tone, “I might tell Mother that you’ve been talking to the people who killed our father. Talking to them and spying for them. Enemies of France. See what she says to that.”
Reinette looked agitated.
“Boise, you promised!”
I shook my head solemnly.
“That doesn’t count. It’s my patriotic duty.”
I must have sounded convincing. Reinette turned pale. And yet the words themselves meant nothing to me. I felt no real hostility to the Germans. Even when I told myself that they had killed my father, that the man who did it might even be there, actually there in Angers, an hour’s cycle ride down the road, drinking Gros-Plant in some bar-tabac and smoking a Gauloise. The image was clear in my mind, and yet it had little potency. Perhaps because my father’s face was already blurring in my memory. Perhaps in the same way that children rarely get involved in the quarrels of adults, and that adults rarely understand the sudden hostilities that erupt for no comprehensible reason between children. My voice was prim and disapproving, but what I really wanted had nothing to do with our father, France or the war. I wanted to be involved again, to be treated as an adult, a bearer of secrets. And I wanted to go to the cinema, to see Laurel and Hardy or Bela Lugosi or Humphrey Bogart, to sit in the flickering dark with Cassis on one side and Reine-Claude on the other, maybe with a cone of chips in one hand or a strip of licorice…
Reinette shook her head. “You’re crazy,” she said at last. “You know Mother would never let you go into town on your own. You’re too young. Besides-”
“I wouldn’t be on my own. You or Cassis could take me on the back of your bike,”
I continued stubbornly. She rode my mother’s bike. Cassis took Father’s bike to school with him, an awkward black gantrylike thing. It was too far to walk, and without the bikes they would have had to board at the collège, as many country children did.
“Term’s nearly over. We could all go into Angers together. See a film. Have a look round.”
My sister looked mulish.
“She’ll want us to stay home and work on the farm,” she said. “You’ll see. She never wants anyone to have any fun.”
“The number of times she’s been smelling oranges recently,” I told her practically, “I don’t suppose it will matter. We could sneak off. The way she is, she’ll never even know.”
It was easy. Reine was always easy to move. Her passivity was an adult thing, her sly, sweet nature hiding a kind of laziness, almost of indifference. She faced me now, throwing her last weak excuse at me like a handful of sand.
In those days everything I did was crazy to Reine. Crazy for swimming underwater, for teetering at the top of the Lookout Post on one leg, for answering back, for eating green figs or sour apples.
I shook my head.
“It’ll be easy,” I told her firmly. “You can count on me.”
You see from what innocent beginnings it grew. We none of us meant for anyone to be hurt, and yet there is a hard place in the center of me that remembers implacably and with perfect precision. My mother knew the dangers before any of us did. I was sweaty and unstable as dynamite. She knew it, and in her strange way she tried to protect me by keeping me close, even when she would have preferred otherwise. She understood more than I imagined.
Not that I cared-I had a plan of my own, a plan as intricate and carefully laid as my pike traps on the river. I once thought Paul might have guessed, but if he did, he never spoke a word. Small beginnings, leading to lies, deceit and worse.
It began with a fruit stall, one Saturday market day. July 4 it was, the day after my ninth birthday.
It began with an orange.
Until then I had always been judged too young to go into town on market days. My mother would arrive in Angers at nine and set up her little stall by the church. Quite often Cassis or Reinette would accompany her. I stayed behind at the farm, supposedly to do chores, though I usually spent the time by the river, fishing, or in the woods with Paul.
But that year was different. I was old enough now to make myself useful, she told me in her brusque way. Couldn’t stay a little girl forever. She looked at me once, searchingly. Her eyes were the color of old nettles. Besides-casually, without giving the impression of a favor conferred-I might want to go into Angers later that summer, maybe to the cinema, with my brother and sister…
I guessed then that Reinette must have been at work. No one else could have persuaded her. But Reinette knew how to cajole her. Hard she might be, but I thought there was a softer look in her eyes when she spoke to Reinette, as if beneath her gruff exterior something was moved. I mumbled something graceless in reply.
“Besides,” continued my mother, “maybe you need a little responsibility. Keep you from running wild. Teach you something about what matters in life.”
I nodded, trying for some of Reinette’s docility.
I don’t think my mother was fooled. She raised a satirical eyebrow.
“You can help me on the stall,” she said.
And so, for the first time, I accompanied her into town. We rode in the trap together, with our goods packed into boxes beside us and covered with tarpaulin. We had cakes and biscuits in one box, cheeses and eggs in another, fruit in the rest. It was early in the season, and though the strawberries had been good, there was little else ready. We supplemented our income by selling jam, sugared with last year’s autumn beets, before the season really began.
Angers was busy on market day. Carts crammed axle to axle in the main street, bicycles pulling wicker baskets, a small open-topped wagon laden with churns of milk, a woman carrying a tray of loaves on her head, stalls piled high with greenhouse tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, onions, potatoes. Here a stall sold wool or pottery; there wine, milk, preserves, cutlery, fruit, secondhand books, bread, fish, flowers. We settled early. There was a fountain beside the church where the horses could drink, and it was shady. My job was to wrap the food and hand it to the customers while my mother took the money. Her memory and speed of calculation were phenomenal. She could add a list of prices in her head without ever having to write them down, and she never hesitated over change. Notes in one side, coins in the other, she kept the money in the pockets of her smock, then the surplus went into an old biscuit tin she kept under the tarpaulin. I remember it still: pink, with a pattern of roses around the rim. I remember the coins and notes as they slid against the metal-my mother didn’t believe in banks. She kept our savings in a box under the cellar floor, along with the more valuable of her bottles.
That first market day we sold all the eggs and all the cheeses within an hour of arrival. People were aware of the soldiers standing at the intersection, guns crooked casually into the elbow, faces bored and indifferent. My mother caught me staring at the gray uniforms and snapped me sharply to attention.
“Stop that gawking, girl.”
Even when they came through the crowd we had to ignore them, though I could feel my mother’s restraining hand on my arm. A tremor went through her as he stopped in front of our stall, but her face remained impassive. A stocky man with a round, red face, a man who might have been a butcher or a wine merchant in another life. His blue eyes shone gleefully.
“Ach, welche schöne Erdbeeren.” His voice was jovial, slightly beery, the voice of a lazy man on holiday. He took a strawberry between plump fingers and popped it into his mouth. “Schmeckt gut, ja?” He laughed, not unkindly. His cheeks bulged. “Wu-n-der-schön gut!” He pantomimed rapture, rolling his eyes comically at me. In spite of myself I smiled.
My mother gave my arm a warning squeeze. I could feel nervous heat burning from her fingers. I looked at the German once more, trying to understand the source of her tension. He looked no more intimidating than the men who came to the village sometimes-less so, in fact, with his peaked cap and his single pistol in its holster at his side. I smiled again, more in defiance of my mother than for any other reason.
“Gut, ja,” I repeated, and nodded.
The German laughed again, took another strawberry and made his way back through the crowd, his black uniform oddly funereal among the bright patchwork of the market.
Later my mother tried to explain. All uniforms were dangerous, she told me, but the black ones above all. The black ones weren’t just the army. They were the army’s police. Even the other Germans were afraid of them. They could do anything. It didn’t matter that I was only nine years old. Put a foot wrong and I could be shot, shot, did I understand? Her face was stony, but her voice trembled and she kept putting one hand to her temple in a strange helpless gesture, as if one of her headaches were on the way. I barely listened to her warning. It was my first face-to-face encounter with the enemy. Thinking it over later from the top of the Lookout Post, the man I had seen seemed oddly innocuous, rather disappointing. I had expected something more impressive.
The market finished at twelve. We had sold out everything else before that, but we stayed to do a little shopping of our own and for the spoiled goods that my mother was sometimes given by the other stallholders. Overripe fruit, scraps of meat, damaged vegetables that would not last another day. My mother sent me to the grocer’s stall while she bought a piece of discarded parachute silk from under the counter of Madame Petit’s sewing shop, tucking it carefully into her apron pocket. Fabrics of any kind were hard to come by, and we were all wearing hand-me-downs. My own dress was made from the pieces of two others, with a gray bodice and a blue linen skirt. The parachute, Mother told me, had been found in a field just outside Courlé, and would make Reinette a new blouse.
“Cost me the earth,” grumbled Mother, half sullen, half excited. “Trust her kind to get along, even through the war. Always land on their feet.”
I asked what she meant.
“Jews,” said my mother. “They’ve got a knack for making money. Charges the earth for that piece of silk, and never paid a penny for it herself.”
Her tone was unresentful, almost admiring. When I asked her what Jews did, she shrugged dismissively. I guessed she didn’t really know.
“Same as we do, I imagine,” she said. “They get by.” She stroked the parcel of silk in her apron pocket. “All the same,” she said softly, “it’s not right. It’s taking advantage.”
I shrugged inwardly. So much excitement for a piece of old silk. But what Reinette wanted, she had to have. Scraps of velvet ribbon, queued and bartered for; the best of Mother’s old clothes… White ankle socks to wear to school every day, and long after the rest of us had been reduced to wooden-soled clogs, Reinette was wearing black patent shoes with buckles. I didn’t mind. I was used to Mother’s odd inconsistencies.
Meanwhile I went around the other stalls with my empty basket. People saw me, and knowing our family’s history, gave me what they could not sell; a couple of melons, some eggplants, endives, spinach, a head of broccoli, a handful of bruised apricots. I bought bread from the baker’s stall and he threw in a couple of croissants, ruffling my hair with his big floury hand. I swapped fishing stories with the fishmonger, and he gave me some good scraps, wrapped in newspaper. I lingered beside a fruit and vegetable stall as the owner bent to move a box of red onions, trying not to betray myself with my eyes.
That was when I saw it. On the ground just beside the stall, next to a box of chicory, wrapped singly in purple tissue paper and laid on a tray out of the sun. Oranges were scarce then, and I’d hardly hoped to see any on my first visit to Angers, but there they were, smooth and secret in their paper shells, five oranges lined up carefully for repacking. Suddenly I wanted one, needed one with such urgency that I barely even paused to think. There would be no better opportunity; Mother was out of the way.
The closest orange had rolled to the edge of the tray, almost touching my foot. The grocer still had his back to me. His assistant, a boy of Cassis’s age or thereabouts, was busy packing boxes into the back of his van. Vehicles other than buses were rare. The grocer was a wealthy man, then, I thought. That made what I was planning easier to justify.
Pretending to look at some sacks of potatoes I shuffled off my wooden clog. Then I reached out my bare foot, stealthily, and with toes grown clever from years of climbing flicked the orange from out of the tray. It rolled, as I knew it would, a little distance away, half hidden by the green cloth that covered a nearby trestle.
Immediately I put the shopping basket on top if it, then bent as if to remove a stone from my clog. Between my legs I observed the grocer as he picked up the remaining cases of produce and hoisted them into the van. He did not notice me as I maneuvered the stolen orange into my basket.
So easy. It had been so easy. My heart was beating hard, my face flaring so wildly that I was sure someone would notice. The orange in my basket felt like a live grenade. I stood up, very casually, and turned toward my mother’s pitch.
Then I froze. From across the square, one of the Germans was watching me. He was standing by the fountain, slouching a little, a cigarette cupped into his palm. The marketgoers avoided coming too close, and he stood in his little circle of stillness, his eyes fixed upon me. He must have seen my theft. He could hardly have missed it.
For a moment I stared at him, unable to move. My face was rigid. Too late I remembered Cassis’s stories about the cruelty of the Germans. He was watching me still; I wondered what the Germans did with thieves.
Then he winked at me.
I stared at him for a second, then turned abruptly away, my face burning, the orange almost forgotten at the bottom of my basket. I did not dare look at him again, even though my mother’s stall was quite close by the place he was standing. I was shaking so badly that I was sure my mother would notice, but she was too preoccupied with other things. Behind us I sensed the German’s eyes on me; felt the pressure of that sly, humorous wink like a nail in my forehead. For what seemed like forever, I waited for a blow that never came.
We left then, after dismantling the stall and putting the canvas and the trestle back onto the trap. I took the bag from the mare’s nose and guided her gently between the shafts, feeling the German’s eyes on the nape of my neck all the time. I had hidden the orange in my apron pocket, wrapping it in a piece of the damp newspaper from the fishmonger’s so that my mother would not smell it on me. I kept my hands in my pockets so that no unexpected bulge would alert her to its presence, and I rode silently during the journey home.
I told no one about the orange but Paul-and that was because he came unexpectedly to the Lookout Post and found me gloating. He had never seen an orange before. At first he thought it was a ball. He held the fruit between his cupped hands, almost reverently, as if it might spread magical wings and fly away.
We sliced the fruit in two, holding the halves over a couple of broad leaves so that none of the juice should be lost. It was a good one, thin skinned and tart beneath its sweetness. I remember how we sucked every drop of the juice, how we rasped the flesh clear of the skin with our teeth, then sucked at what remained until our mouths were bitter and cottony. Paul made as if to throw the discarded skin from the top of the Lookout Post, but I stopped him in time.
“Give that to me,” I told him.
“I need it for something.”
When he had gone I carried out the last part of my plan. With my pocketknife I chopped the two halves of orange skin into tiny pieces. The scent of the oil, bitter and evocative, filled my nostrils as I worked. I chopped the two leaves we had used for plates too; their scent was faint, but they would help to keep the whole moist for a while. Then I tied the mixture into a piece of muslin (stolen from my mother’s jamming room) and secured it firmly. After that I placed the muslin bag with its fragrant contents in a tobacco tin, which I replaced in my pocket.
Everything was ready.
I would have made a good murderer. Everything was meticulously planned, the few small traces of the crime kicked over in minutes. I washed in the Loire to eliminate all traces of the scent from my mouth, face, hands, rubbing the coarse grit of the banks into my palms so that they glowed pink and raw, scouring under my fingernails with a piece of sharpened stick. On the way home through the fields I picked bunches of wild mint and rubbed them into my armpits, hands, knees, neck, so that any lingering perfume should be overwhelmed by the hot green of the fresh foliage. In any case, Mother noticed nothing when I came into the house. She was making fish stew with the scraps from the market, and I could smell the rich aroma of rosemary and garlic and tomatoes and frying oil coming from the kitchen.
Good. I touched the tobacco tin in my pocket. Very good.
I should have preferred it to be a Thursday, of course. That was when Cassis and Reinette usually went into Angers, and the day they received their pocket money. I was judged too young to have pocket money-what would I spend it on? — but I was sure I could contrive something.
Besides, I told myself, there was no telling that my plan would work at all. I had to try it first.
I hid the tin-opened, now-beneath the living-room stove. It was cold, of course, but the pipes that connected it to the hot kitchen were warm enough for my purpose. In a few minutes the contents of the muslin bag had begun to release a sharp scent.
We sat down to dinner.
The stew was good: red onions and tomatoes cooked in garlic and herbs and a cupful of white wine, the fish scraps simmering tenderly among fried potatoes and whole shallots. Fresh meat was scarce in those days but the vegetables we grew ourselves, and my mother had three dozen bottles of olive oil hidden beneath the cellar floor, along with the best of the wine. I ate hungrily.
“Boise, take your elbows off the table!”
Her voice was sharp, but I saw her fingers creeping unwillingly to her temple in the familiar gesture, and I smiled a little. It was working.
My mother’s place was closest to the pipe.
We ate in silence, but twice more her fingers crept, stealthily, to her head, cheek, eyes, as if checking the density of the flesh. Cassis and Reine said nothing, heads lowered almost to their plates. The air was heavy as the day’s heat turned leaden, and I almost found my own head aching in sympathy.
Suddenly she snapped:
“I can smell oranges. Has any of you brought oranges into the house?” Her voice was shrill, accusing. “Well? Well?”
We shook our heads dumbly.
Again, that gesture. More gently now, the fingers massaging, probing.
“I know I can smell oranges. You’re sure you haven’t brought oranges into the house?”
Cassis and Reine were farthest away from the tobacco tin, and the pot of stew was between them and it, releasing its good smell of wine, fish, oil. Besides… we were used to Mother’s bad spells. It would never have occurred to them that the orange scent of which our mother spoke was anything but a figment of her imagination. I smiled again, and hid the smile beneath my hand.
“Boise, the bread, please.”
I passed it to her in its round basket, but the piece she took stayed untasted throughout the meal. Instead she turned it reflectively around and around on the waxed red tablecloth, pressing her fingers into the soft center, spreading crumbs about her plate. If I had done that, she would have had something sharpish to say.
“Boise, go get the dessert, please.”
I left the table with barely suppressed relief. I felt almost sick with excitement and fear, pulling gleeful faces at myself in the shining copper saucepans. Dessert was a dish of fruit and a few of my mother’s biscuits-broken, of course; she sold the good ones, keeping only the mistakes for home. I noticed that my mother examined the apricots we had brought from the market with suspicion, turning them over in her hand one after the other, even smelling them, as if one of them might somehow be an orange in disguise. Her hand stayed at her temple now as if to protect her eyes from blinding sunlight. She took half a biscuit, crumbled it into pieces, discarded it on her plate.
“Reine, do the dishes. I think I’ll go to my room and lie down. I can feel one of my headaches coming.” My mother’s voice was uninflected, only that tic of hers-the small repetitive movement of the fingers across the face, the temple-betraying her discomfort. “Reine, don’t forget to close the curtains. The shutters. Boise, make sure the plates are put away properly. Mind you don’t forget!”
Even now she was anxious to maintain her own strict order. The plates, stacked in order of size and color, each one wiped with a cloth and dried with a clean, starched tea towel-nothing left to drain sluttishly on the board, that would have been too easy-the tea towels hung out to dry in neat rows.
“Hot water for my good plates, do you hear?” She sounded edgy now, anxious for her good plates. “And mind you wipe them, wipe both sides. No putting my plates away still damp, do you hear me?”
I nodded. She turned, grimacing.
“Reine, make sure she does it.” Her eyes were bright, almost feverish looking. She looked at the clock with a peculiar ticking movement of the head. “And lock the doors. The shutters too.”
At last, she seemed almost ready to go. Turning, pausing, still reluctant to leave us to our own devices, our secret freedoms. Speaking to me in that sharp, stilted way which hid anxiety.
“You just mind those plates, Boise, that’s all!”
Then she was gone. I heard her pouring water in the bathroom sink. I closed the blackout curtains in the living room, bending to retrieve the tobacco tin as I did so, then, stepping out into the corridor, I said, loudly enough for her to hear me:
“I’ll do the bedrooms.”
My mother’s room first. I secured the shutter, drew the curtain and fastened it in place, then looked around quickly. Water was still splashing in the bathroom, and I could hear the sound of my mother brushing her teeth. Moving quickly and silently I removed her pillow from its striped cover, then, with the tip of my pocketknife, made a tiny slit in the seam and poked the muslin bag inside. I pushed it as far in as I could with the hilt of the knife, so that no bulge should betray its presence. Then I replaced the cover, my heart now hammering wildly, smoothing the quilt carefully to prevent creases. Mother always noticed things like that.
I was only just in time. I met her in the passageway, but although she gave me a suspicious look she said nothing. She looked vague and distracted, eyes creased small, her gray-brown hair unbound. I could smell soap on her, and in the gloom of the passageway she looked like Lady Macbeth-a tale I had culled recently from another of Cassis’s books-her hands rubbing against each other, lifting to her face, caressing, cradling it, rubbing again, as if blood, and not the juice of oranges, were the stain she could not wash away.
For a moment I hesitated. She looked so old, so tired. My own head had begun to throb sharply and I wondered what she would do if I went up to her and pressed it against her shoulder. My eyes stung briefly. Why was I doing this, anyway? Then I thought of Old Mother waiting in the murk, of her mad and baleful gaze, of the prize in her belly.
“Well?” My mother’s voice was harsh and stony. “What are you gawking at, idiot?”
“Nothing.” My eyes were dry again. Even my headache was fading as suddenly as it had appeared. “Nothing at all.”
I heard the door snick shut behind her and returned to the living room, where my brother and sister were waiting for me. Inside, I was grinning.
That was Reinette again, her usual helpless cry when all other arguments had been exhausted. Not that it took long to exhaust her-lipsticks and film stars apart, her capacity for argument was always limited.
“It’s as good a time as any,” I told her straightly. “She‘ll sleep late in the morning. As long as we get the chores done, we’ll be able to go wherever we like afterward.”
I looked at her, hard. There was still that business of the lipstick between us, my eyes reminded her. Two weeks earlier. I hadn’t forgotten. Cassis looked at us with curiosity; I was sure she hadn’t told him.
“She’ll be furious if she finds out,” he said slowly.
I shrugged. “Why should she find out? We’ll say we went into the woods looking for mushrooms. Chances are she might not even be out of bed by the time we get back.”
Cassis paused to consider the idea. Reinette shot him a look that was pleading and anxious at the same time.
“Go on, Cassis,” she said. Then, in a lower voice. “She knows. She found out about…” Her voice trailed off. “I had to tell her some of it,” she finished miserably.
He looked at me for a moment, and I felt something pass between us, something change-his look was almost admiration. He shrugged-who cares anyway? — but his eyes remained more watchful now, cautious.
“It wasn’t my fault,” said Reinette.
“No. She’s smart, aren’t you?” said Cassis lightly. “She would have found out sooner or later.”
This was high praise and a few months earlier it might have made me weak with pride, but now I just stared at him.
“Besides,” said Cassis in the same light tone, “if she’s in on it, she won’t be able to run blabbing to Mother.”
I had just turned nine old for my age but still childish enough to be stung by the casual contempt of the words.
“I don’t blab!”
“Fine with me if you come, as long as you pay your own way,” he continued levelly. “Don’t see why either of us should pay for you. I’ll take you on my bike. That’s all. You work the rest out for yourself. All right?”
It was a test. I could see the challenge in his eyes. His smile was mocking, the not-quite-kind smile of the older brother who sometimes shared his last square of chocolate with me, and sometimes Indian-burned my arm so hard that the blood gathered in dark flecks under the skin.
“But she doesn’t get any pocket money,” said Reinette plaintively. “What’s the point of taking-”
Cassis shrugged. It was a typically final gesture, a man’s gesture. I have spoken. He waited for my reaction, arms crossed, that little smile on his lips.
“That’s fine,” I said, trying to sound calm. “That’s fine by me.”
“All right, then,” he decided. “We’ll go tomorrow.”
This was where the day’s chores began. Buckets of water were brought from the well into the kitchen for cooking and washing. We had no hot water-no running water, in fact, except for the hand pump by the well, a few yards from kitchen door. Electricity was slow to come to Les Laveuses, and when bottled gas became too scarce we cooked on a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. The oven was outside, a large old-fashioned charcoal oven the shape of a sugarloaf, and beside it was the well. When we needed water that was where we had to get it, one of us pumping while another held the bucket. There was a wooden lid on the well, closed and padlocked since long before my birth, to prevent accidents. When Mother was not watching we washed under the pump, dousing ourselves with cold water. When she was around we had to use basins of water warmed in copper pans on the stove, as well as gritty coal-tar soap that abraded our skin like pumice, leaving a scum of gray froth on the surface of the water.
That Sunday, we knew Mother would not make an appearance until later. We had all heard her during the night, moaning to herself, turning and rolling on the old bed she had shared with my father, sometimes standing up and walking to and fro in the room, opening the windows for air, the shutters slamming back against the sides of the house and making the floor shake. I lay awake listening for a long time as she moved, paced, sighed, argued with herself in her percussive whisper. At about midnight I fell asleep, but awoke, an hour or so later, to hear her still awake.
It sounds callous now, but all I felt was triumph. There was no guilt at what I had done, no pity for her suffering. I didn’t understand it then, had no idea of what a torment insomnia can be. That the little bag of orange peel inside her pillow could have provoked such a reaction seemed almost impossible. The more she tossed and sighed on her pillow, the stronger the scent must have become, warmed by the feverish nape of her neck. The stronger the scent, the greater her anxiety. The headache must come soon, she thought. Somehow the anticipation of pain can be even more troubling, more of a misery than the pain itself. The anxiety that was a permanent crease in her forehead nibbled at her mind like a rat in a box, killing sleep. Her nose told her there were oranges, but her mind said it was impossible — how could there be oranges, for God’s sake? — and yet the scent of orange, bitter and yellow as old age, sweated from every dark mote of that room.
She rose at three and lit a lamp to write in her album. I can’t know for sure that it was then — she never wrote dates — and yet I know.
Worse now than it’s ever been, she writes. The script is tiny, a column of ants scrawled across the page in violet ink. I lie in bed amp; wonder whether I’ll ever sleep again. Whatever happens can’t ever be worse than this. Even going insane might be a relief. And a little later, under a recipe for vanilla-potato pie, she writes, Like the clock, I am divided. At three in the morning, anything is possible.
After that she got up to take her morphine pills. She kept them in the bathroom cabinet, next to my dead father’s shaving things. I heard the door open, the tired squeak of her sweating feet against the polished boards. The bottle rattled, and I heard the clink of a cup as she poured water from the jug. I suppose that six hours’ insomnia might well have finally provoked one of her headaches. In any case she was out like a light when, some time later, I got up.
Reinette and Cassis were still asleep, and the light that bled from beneath the thick blackout curtain was greenish and pale. It might have been five o’clock. There was no timepiece in our bedroom. I sat up in bed, felt for my clothes in the dark, dressed quickly. I knew every corner of the little room. I could hear Cassis and Reine breathing — he with shallower, almost wheezing breaths — and very quietly I stepped past their beds. There was a great deal to do before I awoke them.
First I listened at the door of my mother’s room. Silence. I knew she had taken her pills, and the chance was that she would be sleeping heavily, but I could not run the risk of being caught. Very gently I turned the doorknob. A board beneath my bare foot popped with a sound like a firecracker. I stopped mid-gesture, listening for her breathing, for any change in its rhythms. There were none. I pushed the door. One shutter had been left slightly open, and the room was light. My mother was lying across the bed. She had kicked off the covers during the night, and one pillow had fallen to the floor. The other was half covered by her outflung arm, and her head was hanging uncomfortably at an angle, her hair brushing the floorboards. I noticed with no surprise that the pillow in which I had concealed the muslin bag was the one upon which she was resting. I knelt beside her. Her breathing was thick and slow. Beneath her bruise-colored eyelids the pupils moved erratically. Slowly I worked my fingers into the pillowcase beneath her.
It was easy. My fingers worked at the knot in the center of the pillow, coaxing it back toward the slit in the lining. I touched the bag, drew it closer with my fingernails, finally pulling it from its hiding place and safe into the palm of my hand. My mother never stirred. Only her eyes ticked and skittered under the darkened flesh, as if constantly following something bright and elusive. Her mouth was half open, and a thread of drool had crawled down her cheek to the mattress. On an impulse I put the sachet beneath her nostrils, crushing it to release the scent, and she whimpered in her sleep, turning her head away from the scent and frowning. I put the orange sachet into my pocket again.
Then I began in earnest. A final glance behind me at my mother, as if she might be a dangerous animal feigning sleep. Then I moved to the mantelpiece. There was a clock there, a heavy piece with a round dial under a gilt and glass dome. It looked strange above the bare little black grate, too ornate for my mother’s room, but she had inherited it from her mother, and it was one of her most prized possessions. I lifted the glass dome and carefully turned the clock’s hands back. Five hours. Six. I replaced the dome.
Then I rearranged the ornaments on the mantelpiece-a framed photograph of my father, another of a woman I knew to be my grandmother, a pottery vase of dried flowers, a dish containing three hairpins and a single sugared almond from Cassis’s christening. I turned the photographs against the wall. I placed the vase on the floor. I took the hairpins from the dish and put them in the pocket of my mother’s discarded apron. Then I picked up her clothes and draped them artistically around the room. One clog balancing on the lamp shade. The other on the window ledge. Her dress hanging neatly on a hanger behind the door, but her apron spread out on the boards like a picnic tablecloth. Finally I opened her wardrobe and positioned the door so that the mirror inside it would reflect the bed from where she was lying. The first thing she would see as she awoke was herself.
I did none of this from any real sense of mischief. My intention was not to hurt but to disorient, to fool her into thinking that her imagined attack had been real and that she herself had, unknowingly, moved the objects, arranged the clothes, changed the clock. I knew from my father that she sometimes did things and lost track of doing them, that in the extremity of her pain and confusion her vision was troubled, her thoughts more so. The clock on the kitchen wall might suddenly appear bisected, one half clearly visible and the other suddenly not there, nothing but the bare wall behind it, or a wineglass might seem to change place on its own, to shift slyly from one side of the plate to the other. Or a face, a human face — mine, my father’s, Raphaël’s at the café — half the features would be suddenly sheared away as if by some terrible surgery, or half of the page of a cookbook removed even as she read, the remaining letters dancing incomprehensibly before her.
Of course I didn’t know all that then. I learned most of this from the album, from her scribbled notes, some frantic, almost despairing — at three in the morning, anything seems possible — others almost clinical in their detachment, noting symptoms with cool scientific curiosity. Like the clock, I am divided.
Reine and Cassis were still asleep when I left, and I guessed I had about half an hour to take care of my business before they awoke. I checked the sky, which was clear and greenish, with a faint yellow stripe on the horizon. Dawn was maybe ten minutes away. I would have to hurry.
I took a bucket from the kitchen, pulled on my clogs, which were waiting on the doormat, and ran as fast as I could toward the river. I took the shortcut through Hourias’s back field, where summer sunflowers raised hairy, still-green heads at the pale sky. I kept low, invisible beneath the spread of leaves, my bucket clanging against my leg at every step. It took me less than five minutes to arrive at the Standing Stones.
At five in the morning the Loire is still and sumptuous with mist. The water is beautiful at that time of the day, cool and magically pale, the sandbanks rising like lost continents. The water smells of night, and here and there a spray of new sunlight makes mica shadows on the surface. I took off my shoes and my clothes and surveyed the water critically. It looked deceptively still.
The Treasure Stone was maybe thirty feet from the bank, and the water at its base looked oddly silky at the surface, a sign that a strong current was at work. I could drown here, I told myself, and no one would even know where to look for me.
But I had no choice. Cassis had issued a challenge. I had to pay my own way. How could I do that, with no pocket money of my own, without using the purse hidden in the treasure chest? Of course, there was a chance he might have removed it. If he had, I would risk stealing from my mother’s purse. But that I was reluctant to do. Not because stealing was especially wrong, but because of my mother’s unusual memory for figures. She knew what she had to the last centime. She would know at once what I had done.
No. It had to be the treasure chest.
Since Cassis and Reinette had finished school there had been few expeditions to the river. They had treasure of their own — adult treasure — to gloat over. The few coins in the purse amounted to a couple of francs, no more. I was counting on Cassis’s laziness, his conviction that no one but he would be able to reach the box tied to the pillar. I was sure the money was still there.
Carefully I scrambled down the banking and into the water. It was cold, river mud oozing between my toes. I waded out until the water was waist deep. I could feel the current now like an impatient dog at the leash. God, it was already so strong! I put out a hand against the first pillar, pushing away from it into the current, and took another step. I knew that there was a drop just ahead, a point at which the still-shallow verge of the Loire sheared away into nothingness. Cassis, when he was making the trip, always pretended to drown at this point, turning belly up into the opaque water, struggling, screaming with a mouthful of brown Loire spurting from between his lips. He always fooled Reine, however many times he did this, making her squeal in horror as he sank beneath the surface.
I had no time for such an exhibition. I felt for the drop with my toes. There. Pushing against the riverbed I propelled myself as far as I could with my first kick, keeping the Standing Stones downriver to my right. The water was warmer on the surface, and the drag of current not as strong. I swam steadily, in a smooth arc, from the first Standing Stone to the second. The Stones are maybe four meters apart at their widest stretch, spread unevenly from the bank. I could make two meters with a good strong kick against each pillar, aiming slightly upstream so that the current would bring me back to the next pillar in time to begin again. Like a small boat tacking against a strong wind, I limped toward the Treasure Stone in this way, feeling the current grow stronger each time. I was gasping with cold. Then I was at the fourth pillar, making my final lunge toward my goal. As the current dragged me toward the Treasure Stone I overshot the pillar and there was a moment of sudden, sparkling terror as I began to move downstream into the main drag of the river, my arms and legs pinwheeling against the water. Panting, almost crying with panic, I managed to kick myself in range of the Stone and grabbed the rope that secured the treasure chest to the pillar. It felt weedy and unpleasant in my hand, slimed with the brown ooze of the river, but I used it to maneuver myself around the pillar.
I clung there for a moment, letting my pounding heart quiet. Then, with my back wedged safely against the pillar, I hauled the treasure chest up and out of its muddy cradle. It was a difficult job. The box itself was not especially heavy, but weighted with chain and tarpaulin as it was, it seemed a dead weight. Trembling with cold now, my teeth chattering, I struggled with the chain and finally felt something give. Kicking my legs frantically to keep my position against the pillar, I hauled at the box. I knew another moment of near panic as the mud-slimed tarpaulin caught at my feet, then my fingers were working at the rope that held the box. For an instant I was sure that my numbed fingers would not be able to open the tin, then the catch gave way and water rushed into the treasure chest. I swore. Still, there was the purse, an old brown leather thing Mother had discarded because of a faulty catch. I grabbed it and jammed it between my teeth for safety, then with a final effort, slammed the box closed and let it sink, weighted by its chain, to the bottom again. The tarpaulin was lost, of course, the remaining treasure waterlogged, but that couldn’t be helped. Cassis would have to find somewhere drier to hide his cigarettes. I had the money, and that was all that mattered.
I swam back to the bank, missing the last two pillars and drifting two hundred meters down toward the Angers road before I managed to steer myself out of the current-more like a dog than ever, a mad brown dog with its leash twined crazily around my frozen legs. The whole episode, I guessed, had taken maybe ten minutes.
I forced myself to rest awhile, feeling the slight warmth of the sun’s first rays on my face, drying the mud of the Loire against my skin. I was trembling with cold and exhilaration. I counted the money in the purse — there was certainly enough for a cinema ticket and a glass of juice. Good. Then I walked upstream to where I had left my clothes. I dressed — an old skirt and a red sleeveless man’s shirt cut down to make a smock. My clogs. I did a perfunctory check on my fishing traps, tipping out the small fry or leaving it in place as bait. In a cray pot by the Lookout Post there was the unexpected bonus of a small pike — not Old Mother, of course — and this I slid out into the bucket I had brought from the house. Other catches: a mess of eels from the muddy flats beside the big sandbank, a sizable bleak from one of my catch — all nets. I piled them all into the bucket. They would be my alibi if Cassis and Reine were already awake. Then I made my way home through the fields as unobtrusively as I had come.
I did well to bring the fish. Cassis was washing under the pump when I got back, though Reinette had warmed a basin of water and was dabbling delicately at her face with a soapy washrag. They looked at me curiously for a moment, then Cassis’s face relaxed into an expression of cheery contempt.
“You never give up, do you?” he said, jerking his dripping head at the fish bucket. “What you got in there, anyway?”
“Couple of things,” I said carelessly. The purse was in the pocket of my smock, and I smiled inwardly at its comforting weight. “Pike. Just a small one,” I said.
“You might catch the small ones, but you’ll never catch Old Mother,” he said. “Even if you did, what’d you do with it? A pike that old wouldn’t be any good to eat. Bitter as wormwood and full of bones.”
“I’ll catch her,” I said stubbornly.
“Oh?” His tone was careless, disbelieving. “And what then? You’ll make a wish, will you? Wish for a million francs and an apartment on the Left Bank?”
I shook my head mutely.
“I’d wish to be a movie star,” said Reine, toweling her face. “To see Hollywood, and the lights, and Sunset Boulevard, and to drive in a limousine and to have dozens and dozens of dresses…”
Cassis gave her a brief look of scorn, which cheered me immensely. Then he turned to me.
“Well, what about it, Boise?” His grin was brash and irresistible. What’s it going to be? Furs? Cars? A villa in Juan-les-Pins?“
I shook my head again.
“I’ll know when I’ve caught it,” I said flatly. “And I’ll get it too. See if I don’t.”
Cassis studied me for a moment, the grin sliding from his face. Then he made a little noise of disgust and turned back to his ablutions.
“You’re something, Boise,” he said. “Really something, you know?”
Then we raced off to finish the day’s chores before Mother woke up.
There is always plenty to do on a farm. Water to bring in from the pump, leaving it in metal buckets on the cellar tiles so that the sun doesn’t warm it, goats to milk, the pail to be covered with a muslin cloth and left in the dairy, the goats then taken to the pasture so that they don’t eat all the vegetables in the garden, hens and ducks to feed, the day’s crop of ripe strawberries to pick, the baking oven to stoke even though I doubted Mother would be doing much baking today. The horse, Bécassine, to be let out into the pasture and fresh water brought to the troughs. Working at maximum speed it took us the best part of two hours to finish, and by the time we did the sun’s heat was gaining, the night damp already steaming off the baked-earth paths and the dew drying on the grass. It was time to go.
Neither Reinette nor Cassis had mentioned the money question. There was no need. I paid my way, Cassis had told me, assuming that this would be impossible. Reine looked at me oddly as we picked the last of the strawberries, wondering perhaps at my self — assurance, and when she caught Cassis’s eye she giggled. I noticed that she had dressed with especial care this morning — her pleated school skirt, ankle socks and shoes with a red short — sleeved sweater — and her hair was rolled into a fat sausage at the back of her head, secured with hairpins. She smelt unfamiliar too, a kind of sweetish powdery smell like marshmallow and violets, and she was wearing the red lipstick. I wondered if she was meeting someone. A boy, perhaps. Someone she knew from school. She certainly seemed more nervous than usual, picking the fruit with the delicate haste of a rabbit feeding among weasels. As I moved between the rows of strawberry plants I heard her whisper something to Cassis, then I heard her high, nervous giggle.
I shrugged inwardly. I supposed they were planning to go off somewhere without me. I had persuaded Reine to take me, and they would not go back on that promise. But as far as they knew, I had no money. That meant they could go to the pictures without me, perhaps leaving me by the fountain in the market square to wait for them, or sending me on an imaginary errand while they went to meet their friends… Sourly I bit down on the thought. That was supposed to be how it went. So sure of themselves that they had overlooked the one obvious solution to my problem. Reine would never have swum the Loire to the Treasure Stone. Cassis still saw me as the little sister, too much in awe of the adored older brother to hazard the slightest thing without his permission. Occasionally he looked at me and grinned his satisfaction, his eyes gleaming with mockery.
We left for Angers at eight o’clock, I riding on the back wheel of Cassis’s huge ungainly bike with my feet wedged perilously beneath the handlebars. Reine’s bicycle was smaller and more elegant, with high handlebars and a leather saddle. There was a bicycle basket across the handlebars in which she carried a flask of chicory coffee, and three identical packets of sandwiches. Reine had tied a white scarf around her head to protect her coiffure, and the tails whipped at her nape as she rode. We stopped three or four times on our way — to drink from the flask in Reine’s bicycle basket, to check a soft tire, to eat a piece of bread and cheese in lieu of breakfast. At last we came to the suburbs of Angers, passing the collège — closed now for the holidays and guarded by a pair of German soldiers at the gate — and down streets of stucco houses toward the town center.
The cinema, the Palais-Doré, was in the main square, close to where the market was held. Several rows of small shops lined the square, most of which were opening for the morning, and a man was washing down the pavement with a bucket of water and a broom. We pushed the bikes then, steering them into an alley between a barber’s and shuttered butcher’s shop. The alley was barely wide enough to walk through, and the ground was piled with rubble and debris; it seemed safe to assume that our bikes would be left alone. A woman at the terrasse of a café smiled at us and called a greeting; a few Sunday customers were already there, drinking bowls of chicory and eating croissants or hard-boiled eggs. A delivery boy went by on a bicycle, ringing his bell importantly; by the church a newspaper stand sold single-sheet bulletins. Cassis looked round, then made his way to the newsstand. I saw him hand something to the newspaper man, then the man handed Cassis a bundle, which quickly vanished into Cassis’s trouser waistband.
“What was that?” I asked.
Cassis shrugged. I could see that he was pleased with himself, too pleased to withhold the information just to annoy me. He lowered his voice conspiratorially and allowed me a glimpse of rolled-up papers, which he immediately covered up again.
“Comic books. Serial story.” He winked at Reine self-importantly. “American film magazine.”
Reine uttered a squeak of excitement and made as if to grab his arm.
“Let me, let me see!”
Cassis shook his head irritably.
“Shh! For God’s sake, Reine!” He lowered his tone again. “He owed me a favor. Black market,” he mouthed. “Kept them for me under the counter.”
Reinette looked at him in awe. I was less impressed. Perhaps because I was less aware of the scarcity of such items; perhaps because the seeds of rebellion already growing in me pushed me to scorn anything of which my brother seemed overly proud. I gave a shrug to show my indifference. Still, I wondered what kind of “favor” the newspaper man might have owed Cassis, and finally concluded that he must have been bragging. I said as much.
“If I had contacts with the black market,” I said with a passable show of skepticism, “I’d make sure I got better stuff than a few old papers.”
Cassis looked stung.
“I can get anything I want,” he said quickly. “Comics, smokes, books, real coffee… chocolate-” He broke off with a scornful laugh. “You can’t even get the money for a rotten cinema ticket!” he said.
Smiling, I took the purse from out of my apron pocket. I jingled it a little, so that he could hear the coins inside. His eyes widened as he recognized the purse.
“You little thief!” he breathed at last. “You rotten, bitching little thief!”
I looked at him, but said nothing.
“How did you get that?”
“Swum out and got it,” I answered defiantly. “Anyway, it wasn’t stealing. The treasure belonged to all of us.”
But Cassis was hardly listening.
“You bitching, thieving…” he said again.
Clearly he was disturbed that anyone other than he should obtain anything by guile.
“I don’t see that it’s any different from you and your black market,” I said calmly. “It’s all the same game, isn’t it?” I let this sink in before I continued. “And you’re just upset because I’m better at it than you.”
Cassis glared at me.
“It isn’t anything like the same thing,” he said at last.
I kept my expression disbelieving. It was always so easy to make Cassis give himself away. Just like his son, all those years later. Neither of them ever understood anything about guile.
Cassis was red-faced, almost shouting now, his conspiratorial tone forgotten.
“I could get you anything you liked. Proper fishing tackle for your stupid pike,” he hissed savagely. “Chewing gum, shoes, silk stockings, silk underwear if you wanted-”
I laughed aloud at that. Brought up as we had been, the idea of silk underwear was ludicrous. Enraged, Cassis grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me.
“You stop that!” His voice cracked with fury. “I got friends! I know people! I could get-you-anything-you-wanted!”
You see how easy it was to take him off balance. Cassis was spoiled in his way, too used to being the great older brother, the man of the house, the first to go to school, the tallest, the strongest, the wisest. His occasional bouts of wildness — his escapades into the woods, his daredevilry on the Loire, his small thefts from market stalls and shops in Angers — were uncontrolled, almost hysterical. He took no enjoyment from them. It was as if he needed to prove something to both of us, or to himself.
I could tell I perplexed him. His thumbs were digging so deeply into my arms that they would make great ripe blackberry marks on my skin the next day, but I did not show any sign of it. Instead I just looked at him steadily and tried to stare him out.
“We’ve got friends, Reine and me,” he said in a lower voice, almost reasonable now, his thumbs still gouging into my arms. “Powerful friends. Where do you think she got that stupid lipstick? Or the perfume? Or that stuff she puts on her face at night? Where d’you think we got all that from? And how d’you think we earned it?”
He let go of my arms then with an expression of mingled pride and consternation, and I realized that he was slick with fear.
I don’t remember very much about the film. Circonstances Atténuantes, with Arletty and Michel Simon, an old film that Cassis and Reine had already seen. Reine at least was untroubled by the fact; she stared at the screen the whole time, rapt. I found the story unlikely, too removed from my realities. Besides, my mind was on other things. Twice the film in the projector broke; the second time the houselights went on and the audience roared disapproval. A harassed-looking man in a dinner jacket shouted for silence. A group of Germans in a corner, feet resting on the seats in front of them, began slow-clapping. Suddenly Reine, who had come out of her trance to complain irritably about the interruption, gave a squeak of excitement.
“Cassis!” She leaned over me and I could smell a sweetish chemical scent in her hair. “Cassis, he’s here!”
“Shh!” hissed Cassis furiously. “Don’t look back!”
Reine and Cassis sat facing the front of the auditorium for a moment, expressionless as dummies. Then he spoke, from the corner of his mouth, like someone whispering in church.
Reinette flicked a glance at the Germans from the corner of her eye.
“Back there,” she replied in the same fashion. “Some others I don’t know.”
Around us the crowd stamped and yelled. Cassis ventured a quick look.
“I’ll wait till the lights go down,” he said.
Ten minutes later the lights dimmed and the film continued. Cassis wriggled from his seat toward the back of the auditorium. I followed him. On the screen Arletty pranced and eye-fluttered in a tight low-cut dress. The mercury reflection lit our low-bent, running figures, making Cassis’s face a livid mask.
“Go back, you little idiot,” he hissed at me. “I don’t want you with me, getting in the way!”
I shook my head.
“I won’t get in the way,” I told him. “Not unless you try to stop me coming with you.”
Cassis made an impatient gesture. He knew I meant what I said. In the dark I could feel him trembling, with excitement or nerves.
“Keep down,” he told me at last. “And let me do the talking.”
We finally squatted down at the back of the auditorium, close to where the group of German soldiers made an island among the regular crowd. Several of the men were smoking; we could see dimps of red fire on their flickering faces.
“See him there, at the end?” whispered Cassis. “That’s Hauer. I want to talk to him. You just stay with me and don’t say a word, all right?”
I did not reply. I wasn’t going to promise anything.
Cassis slid into the aisle next to the soldier called Hauer. Looking around curiously I could see that no one was paying us the slightest attention except the German standing behind us, a slight, sharp-faced young man with his uniform cap tilted back at a rakish angle and a cigarette in one hand. Beside me I heard Cassis whispering urgently to Hauer, then the crackle of papers. The sharp-faced German grinned at me and gestured with the cigarette.
Suddenly, with a jolt, I recognized him. It was the soldier from the market, the one who had seen me take the orange. For a minute I could do nothing but stare at him, transfixed.
The German gestured again. The glow from the cinema screen lit his face, throwing dramatic shadows from his eyes and cheekbones.
I cast a nervous glance at Cassis, but my brother was too deep in conversation with Hauer to notice me. The German was still watching expectantly, a little smile on his lips, standing some distance away from where the others were seated. He held his cigarette with the tip cupped into his palm, and I could see the dark smudge of his bones beneath the glowing flesh. He was in uniform, but his jacket was undone and his head was bare. For some obscure reason, that reassured me.
“Come here,” said the German softly.
I could not speak. My mouth felt as if it were full of straw. I would have run, but was not sure my legs would carry me. Instead, I put up my chin and moved toward him.
The German grinned and dragged another breath from his cigarette.
“You’re the little orange girl, aren’t you?” he said as I came closer.
I did not reply.
The German seemed unconcerned by my silence.
“You’re quick. As quick as I was when I was a boy.” He reached into his pocket and brought out something wrapped in silver paper. “Here. You’ll like it. It’s chocolate.”
I eyed him with suspicion.
“I don’t want it,” I said.
The German grinned again.
“You like oranges better, do you?” he asked.
I said nothing.
“I remember an orchard by a river,” the German said softly. “Near the village where I grew up. It had the biggest, blackest plums you ever saw. High wall all around. Farm dogs prowling. All through summer, I tried to get at those plums! I tried everything. I could hardly think of anything else.”
His voice was pleasant and lightly accented, his eyes bright behind a scrawl of cigarette smoke. I observed him warily, not daring to move, unsure whether or not he was making fun of me.
“Besides, what’s stolen tastes so much better than what you get for free, don’t you think?”
Now I was sure he was mocking me, and my eyes widened indignantly.
The German seemed to see my expression, and laughed, still holding out the chocolate.
“Go on, Backfisch, take it. Imagine you’re stealing it from the Boches.”
The square was half melted, and I ate it straightaway. It was real chocolate too — not the whitish, gritty stuff we occasionally bought in Angers. The German watched me eat, amused, as I eyed him with undiminished suspicion, but with growing curiosity.
“Did you get them in the end?” I asked at last, in a voice thick with chocolate. “The plums, I mean?”
The German nodded.
“I did, Backfisch. I still remember the taste.”
“And you weren’t caught?”
“That too.” The grin became rueful. “I ate so many that I made myself sick, and so I was found out. I got such a hiding! But I got what I wanted in the end. That’s what matters, isn’t it?”
“That’s good,” I agreed. “I like to win.” I paused. “Is that why you didn’t tell anyone about the orange?”
The German shrugged.
“Why should I tell anyone? It was none of my business. Besides, the grocer had plenty more. He could spare one.”
I nodded. “He’s got a van,” I said, licking the square of silver paper so that none of the chocolate would be lost. The German seemed to agree.
“Some people want to keep everything they’ve got to themselves,” he said. “That isn’t fair, is it?”
I shook my head. “Like Madame Petit at the sewing shop,” I said. “Charges the earth for a bit of parachute silk she got for free.”
It struck me then that perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned Madame Petit, and I shot him a quick glance, but the German seemed hardly to be listening. Instead he was looking at Cassis, still whispering to Hauer at the end of the row of seats. I felt a stab of annoyance that Cassis should interest him more than I did.
“That’s my brother,” I said.
“Is it?” The German looked back at me again, smiling. “You’re quite a family. Are there any more of you, I wonder?”
I shook my head.
“I’m the youngest. Framboise.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Françoise.”
“Framboise,” I corrected.
He held out his hand. After a moment’s hesitation, I shook it.
So that was how I met Tomas Leibniz. For some reason Reinette was furious with me for talking to him, and sulked all the way through the rest of the film. Hauer had slipped Cassis a packet of Gauloises, and we both crept back to our seats, Cassis smoking one of his cigarettes and myself lost in speculation. Only when the film was finished was I ready to ask questions.
“Those cigarettes,” I said. “Is that what you meant when you said you could get things?”
Cassis was looking pleased with himself, but I still sensed anxiety beneath the surface. He held his cigarette in the palm of his hand, as if in imitation of the Germans, but on him the gesture looked awkward and self-conscious.
“Do you tell them things? Do you?”
“We sometimes… tell them things,” admitted Cassis, smirking.
“What kind of things?”
“It started with that old idiot and his radio,” he said in a low voice. “That was only fair. He shouldn’t have had it anyway, and he shouldn’t have pretended to be so shocked when all we were doing was watching the Germans. Sometimes we leave notes with a delivery man, or at the café. Sometimes the newspaper man gives us stuff they’ve left. Sometimes they bring it.” He tried for nonchalance but I could sense that he was anxious, edgy. “It’s nothing important,” he continued. “Most of the Boches use the black market themselves anyway, and send stuff home to Germany. You know, stuff they’ve requisitioned. So it doesn’t really matter.”
I considered this.
“But the Gestapo-”
“Oh, grow up, Boise!” Suddenly he was angry, as he always was when I put him under pressure. “What do you know about the Gestapo?” He looked around nervously, then lowered his voice again. “Of course we don’t deal with them. This is different. I told you, it’s just business. And anyway, it’s nothing to do with you.”
I faced him, feeling resentful.
“Why not? I know things too.”
I wished now that I had made more of Madame Petit with the German, that I had told him she was a Jew.
Cassis shook his head scornfully.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
We rode home in slightly apprehensive silence, perhaps expecting Mother to have guessed about our unsanctioned trip, but when we got home we found her in unusual spirits. She did not mention the smell of oranges, her sleepless night or the changes I had made in her room, and the meal she prepared was almost a celebration dinner, with carrot and chicory soup, boudin noir with apple and potatoes, black buckwheat pancakes and clafoutis for dessert, heavy and moist with last year’s apples and crusted with brown sugar and cinnamon. We ate in silence as always, but Mother seemed abstracted, quite forgetting to tell me to take my elbows off the table and failing to see my tangled hair and smudged face.
Perhaps the orange had tamed her, I thought.
She made up for it the next day, however, reverting to her usual self again with a vengeance. We avoided her as best we could, doing our chores in haste then retreating to the Lookout Post and the river, where we played halfheartedly. During these summer days at the river Paul came with us, but he sensed that he was no longer a part of us, that he was excluded from the circle we made. I felt sorry for him, even a little guilty, knowing what it was like to be excluded, but could do nothing to prevent it. Paul would have to fight his own battles, as I had fought mine.
Besides, Mother disliked Paul as she disliked the entire Hourias family. In her eyes Paul was an idler, too lazy to go to school, too stupid even to learn to read in the village with the other children. His parents were just as bad-a man who sold bloodworms by the side of the road and a woman who mended other people’s clothes. But my mother was especially vicious about Paul’s uncle. At first I thought this was simply village rivalry. Philippe Hourias owned the biggest farm in Les Laveuses, acres of sunflower fields and potatoes and cabbages and beets, twenty cows, pigs, goats, a tractor at a time when most local people still used hand plows and horses, a proper milking machine… It was jealousy, I told myself, the resentment of the struggling widow against the wealthy widower. Still, it was odd, given that Philippe Hourias had been my father’s oldest friend. They had been boys together, fishing, swimming, sharing secrets. Philippe had carved my father’s name on the war memorial himself, and always laid flowers at its base on Sundays. But Mother never acknowledged him with more than a nod. Never a gregarious soul, after the orange incident she seemed more hostile than ever toward him.
In fact it was only much later that I began to guess at the truth. When I read the album, in fact, more than forty years afterward. That tiny, migraine-inducing script staggering across the bound pages. She wrote:
Hourias knows already. I see him looking at me sometimes. Pity and curiosity, like I was something he ran over in the road. Last night he saw me coming out of La Rép with the things I need to buy there. He didn’t say anything, but I knew he’d guessed. He thinks we should marry, of course. It makes sense to him, widow and widower, marrying their land together. Yannick had no brother to take over when he died. And a woman isn’t expected to run a farm alone.
If she had been a naturally sweet woman, perhaps I might have suspected something sooner. But Mirabelle Dartigen was not a sweet woman. She was rock salt and river mud, her rages as quick and furious and inevitable as summer lightning. I never sought the cause, merely avoiding the effect as best I could.
There were no more trips to Angers that week, and neither Cassis nor Reinette seemed inclined to speak of our meeting with the Germans. As for myself, I was reluctant to mention my conversation with Leibniz, though I was unable to forget it. It made me feel by turns apprehensive and oddly powerful too.
Cassis was restless, Reinette sullen and discontented, and to add to that it drizzled all week, so that the Loire swelled ominously and the sunflower fields were blue with rain. Seven days had passed since our last visit to Angers. Market day came and went; this time Reinette accompanied Mother to town, leaving Cassis and myself to prowl discontentedly through the dripping orchard. The green plums on the trees made me think of Leibniz, with an odd mixture of curiosity and disquiet. I wondered whether I would ever see him again.
Then, unexpectedly, I did.
Early in the morning of the next market day, it was Cassis’s turn to help with the provisions. Reine was fetching the new cheeses, wrapped in vine leaves, from the coolroom and Mother was collecting eggs from the henhouse. I was just back from the river with the morning catch, a couple of small perches and bleaks that I had chopped for bait and left in a bucket by the window. It was not the Germans’ usual day to call, and as a result it was I who happened to open the front door when they knocked.
There were three of them: two I did not recognize, and Leibniz, very correct now in uniform, standing with a rifle slung into the crook of his arm. His eyes widened a little in surprise when he saw me, then he smiled.
If it had been any other German standing there I might have shut the door in their faces, as Denis Gaudin did when they came to requisition his violin. I would certainly have called Mother. But on this occasion I was unsure; I fidgeted uneasily on the doorstep, wondering what to do.
Leibniz turned to the other two and spoke to them in German. I thought I understood from the gestures that accompanied his words that he intended to search our farm himself while the others moved down the lane toward the Ramondin and Hourias places. One of the other Germans looked at me and said something. The three of them laughed. Then Leibniz nodded and, still smiling, stepped past me into our kitchen.
I knew I should call Mother. When the soldiers called she was always more sullen than ever, stonily resentful of their presence and their casual appropriation of anything they required. And today of all days! Her temper was bad enough as it was: this would be the final blow.
Supplies were getting scarce, Cassis had explained when I had asked him about it. Even Germans had to eat. “And they eat like pigs!” he had continued with indignation. “You should see their canteen — whole loaves of bread, with jam and pâté and rillettes and cheese and salted anchovies and ham and sour cabbage and apple — you wouldn’t believe it!”
Leibniz closed the door behind him and looked around. Away from the other soldiers his posture was relaxed, more like a civilian’s. He reached in his pocket and lit a cigarette.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded at last. “We don’t have anything!”
“Orders, Backfisch,” said Leibniz. “Is your father about?”
“I don’t have a father,” I replied with a touch of defiance. “Germans killed him.”
“Ah. I’m sorry.” He seemed embarrassed, and I felt a little swell of pleasure inside. “Your mother, then?”
“Out back.” I glared at him. “It’s market day today. If you take our market stuff we won’t have anything left. We just manage as it is.”
Leibniz glanced around — a little shamefacedly, I thought. I saw him take in the clean tiled floor, the patched curtains, the scarred stripped — pine table. He hesitated.
“I have to do it, Backfisch,” he said softly. “I’ll be punished if I don’t obey orders.”
“You could say you didn’t find anything. You could say there was nothing left when you came.”
“Perhaps.” His eyes lit on the bucket of scraps by the window. “Fisherman in the family, is there? Who is it, your brother?”
I shook my head. “Me.”
Leibniz was surprised.
“Fishing?” he echoed. “You don’t look old enough.”
“I’m nine,” I said, stung.
“Nine?” Lights danced in his eyes, but his mouth stayed serious. “I’m a fisherman myself, you know,” he whispered. “What is it you fish for around here? Trout? Carp? Perch?”
I shook my head.
Pikes are the cleverest of freshwater fish. Sly and cautious in spite of their vicious teeth, they need carefully selected bait to lure them to the surface. Even the smallest thing can make them suspicious: a fraction of a change in temperature; the hint of a sudden movement. There is no quick or easy way to do it; blind luck apart, catching pike takes time and patience.
“Well, that’s different,” said Leibniz thoughtfully. “I don’t think I could let down a fellow fisherman in trouble.” He grinned at me. “Pike, eh?”
“What d’you use, bloodworms or boluses?”
This time he did not smile; it was a serious business. I watched him in silence. It was a ploy that never failed to make Cassis uneasy.
“Don’t take our market stuff,” I repeated.
There was another silence. Then Leibniz nodded.
“I suppose I could manage to think of some story to tell them,” he said slowly. “You’d have to keep quiet, though. Or you could get me into real trouble. Do you understand?”
I nodded. It was fair. After all, he’d kept quiet about the orange. I spat on my palm to seal the bargain. He did not smile, but shook hands with perfect seriousness, as if this were an adult arrangement between us. I half-expected him to ask me for a favor in return, but he did not, and the thought pleased me. Leibniz wasn’t like the others, I told myself.
I watched him go. He did not look back. I watched him as he sauntered down the lane toward the Hourias farm and flicked his cigarette end into the outhouse wall, its glowing tip striking red sparks against the dull Loire stone.
I said nothing to Cassis or Reinette about what had occurred between Leibniz and myself. To have spoken of it to them would have robbed it of its potency. Instead I hugged my secret close, turning it over in my mind like a stolen treasure. It gave me a peculiarly adult feeling of power.
I now thought of Cassis’s film magazines and Reinette’s lipstick with a certain contempt. They thought they’d been so clever. But what had they really done? They’d behaved like children telling tales in school. The Germans treated them like children, bribing them with trinkets. Leibniz had not tried to bribe me. He had spoken to me as an equal, with respect.
The Hourias farm had been badly hit. A week’s supply of eggs requisitioned, half the milk, two whole sides of salted pork, seven pounds of butter, a barrel of oil, twenty-four bottles of wine (ill concealed behind a partition in the cellar), plus any number of terrines and preserves. Paul told me about it. I felt a small pang for him-his uncle provided most of the family’s supplies-but promised myself I would share my own food with him whenever I could. Besides, the season was just beginning. Philippe Hourias would make up his losses soon enough. And I had other things on my mind.
The orange bag was still hidden where I had left it. Not under my mattress-though Reinette still insisted upon keeping her original cache for the beauty aids she imagined to be secret. No, my secret place was a great deal more imaginative. I placed the bag in a small screw-top glass jar and sunk it elbow deep in a barrel of salted anchovies that my mother kept in the cellar. A piece of string tied around the lip of the jar would enable me to locate it when needed. Discovery was unlikely, as Mother disliked the pungent scent of the anchovies and usually sent me to fetch any that might be required.
I knew it would work again.
I waited until Wednesday evening. This time I hid the bag in the spill tray under the stove, where the heat would release the vapor the quickest. Sure enough, Mother was soon rubbing her temple as she worked at the stove, snapping sharply at me if I was late in bringing her flour or wood, scolding-mind you don’t chip my good plates, girl! — and sniffing the air with that animal look of confusion and distress. I closed the kitchen door for maximum effect, and the scent of orange invaded the room once again. I hid the bag in her pillow as before-the pieces of orange peel were crisp by then, blackened by the heat of the stove, and I felt sure that this would be the last time I used the orange bag-pushing it into the pillow beneath the striped slip.
Dinner was burnt.
No one dared mention it, though, and my mother fingered the black brittle lace of her charred pancakes and touched her temple over and over until I was sure I would scream. This time she did not ask whether we had brought oranges into the house, though I could tell she wanted to. She just touched and crumbled and fingered and fidgeted, sometimes breaking the silence with a fierce exclamation of rage at some trivial infringement of the house rules.
“Reine-Claude! Bread on the breadboard! I don’t want you getting crumbs on my clean floor!”
Her voice was waspish, exasperated. I cut a slice of bread, deliberately turning the bread over onto the breadboard so that the flat underside was uppermost. For some reason this always enraged Mother, as did my habit of cutting off the crusty piece from either end of the loaf and discarding the middle section.
“Framboise! Turn that bread over!” She touched her head again, fleetingly, as if checking it was still there. “How many times have I told you about-”
Then she froze midsentence, head on one side, mouth open.
She stayed that way for thirty seconds or so, staring at nothing with the face of a slow pupil trying to remember Pythagoras’s theorem or the rule of the ablative absolute. Her eyes were glassy-green and blank as winter ice. We looked at one another in silence, watching her as the seconds passed. Then she moved again, a brusque and typical gesture of irritation, and began to clear the dishes even though we were only halfway through the meal. No one mentioned that, either.
The next day, as I had predicted, she kept to her bed, and we went to Angers as before. Not to the pictures this time; instead we loitered in the streets, Cassis ostentatiously smoking one of his cigarettes, and settled on the terrasse of a town-center café, Le Chat Rouget. Reinette and I ordered diabolo-menthe, and Cassis began to order pastis, changing meekly to panaché beneath the supercilious gaze of the waiter.
Reine drank carefully, trying not to smear her lipstick. She seemed nervous, head ticking from side to side as if watching out for something.
“Who are we waiting for?” I inquired. “Your Germans?”
Cassis glared at me.
“Tell everyone, won’t you, you idiot!” he snapped. He lowered his voice. “We sometimes meet here,” he explained. “You can pass messages. No one notices. We trade information.”
“What kind of information?”
Cassis made a sound of derision.
“Anything,” he said impatiently. “People with radios. Black market. Traffickers. Resistance.”
He gave this last word a heavy emphasis, lowering his voice still further.
“Resistance,” I repeated.
Try to see what that meant to us. We were children. We had our own rules. The adult world was a distant planet inhabited by aliens. We understood so little of it. Least of all the Resistance, that fabulous quasi-organization. Books and the television made it sound so focused in later years; but I remember none of that. Instead I remember a mad scramble in which rumor chased counter-rumor and drunkards in cafés spoke loudly against the new régime, and people fled to relatives in the country, out of the reach of an invading army already stretched beyond tolerance in the towns. The One Resistance-the Secret Army of popular understanding-was a myth. There were many groups, Communists and Humanists and Socialists and people seeking martyrdom and swaggarts and drunkards and opportunists and saints-all sanctified by time, but in those days nothing like an army, and hardly a secret. Mother spoke of them with scorn. According to her, we’d all be better off if people just kept their heads down.
Even so, Cassis’s whisper awed me. Resistance. It was a word that appealed to my sense of adventure, of drama. It brought images of rival gangs struggling for power, of nighttime escapades, shootings, secret meetings, treasures, dangers braved. In a sense this was still very similar to the games we had played in previous years, Reine, Cassis, Paul and I: the potato guns, passwords, the rituals. The game had broadened a little, that was all. The stakes were higher.
“You don’t know any Resistance,” I said cynically, trying not to sound impressed.
“Not yet, maybe,” said Cassis. “But we could find out. We’ve found out all kinds of things already.”
“It’s all right,” continued Reinette. “We don’t talk about anyone in Les Laveuses. We wouldn’t tell on our neighbors.”
I nodded. That wouldn’t be fair.
“Anyway, in Angers it’s different. Everyone’s doing it here.”
I considered this.
“I could find things out too.”
“What do you know?” said Cassis scornfully.
I almost told him what I’d said to Leibniz about Madame Petit and the parachute silk, but decided against it. Instead I asked the question that had been troubling me since Cassis had first mentioned their arrangement with the Germans.
“What do they do when you tell them things? Do they shoot people? Do they send them to the front?”
“Of course not. Don’t be silly.”
But Cassis was no longer listening to me. Instead his eyes were on the newspaper stand by the church opposite, where a black-haired boy of about his own age was watching us insistently. The boy made an impatient gesture in our direction. Cassis paid for our drinks and stood up.
“Come on,” he said.
Reinette and I followed him. Cassis seemed on friendly terms with the other boy-I supposed he knew him from school. I caught a few words about holiday work, and a snort of low, nervous laughter. Then I saw him slip a folded piece of paper into Cassis’s hand.
“See you later,” said Cassis, moving casually away.
The note was from Hauer.
Meet me at twelve by the school gate. I have something for you.
Only Hauer and Leibniz spoke good French, Cassis explained as we took turns reading the note. The others-Heinemann and Schwartz-knew only basic French, but Leibniz especially might have been a Frenchman himself, someone from Alsace-Lorraine perhaps, with the guttural dialect of the region.
For some reason I sensed that this pleased Cassis, as if passing information to an almost-Frenchman were somehow less reprehensible.
Reinette touched the paper with her fingertips. Her face was flushed with excitement.
“What time is it now?” she said. “Will we be late?”
Cassis shook his head.
“Not with the bikes,” he said, trying for a laconic tone. “Let’s see what they’ve got for us.”
As we retrieved the bikes from their usual place in the alley, I noticed that Reinette took a compact from her pocket and quickly checked her reflection. She frowned; snaking the gold lipstick from the pocket of her dress she retouched her lips in scarlet, smiled, retouched, smiled again. The compact closed. I was not entirely surprised. It was clear to me from the first trip that she had something on her mind besides moving-picture shows. The care with which she dressed, the attention she gave to her hair, the lipstick and the perfume… All this must be for the benefit of someone. To tell the truth I was not especially interested. I was used to Reine and her ways. At twelve she already looked sixteen. With her hair curled in that sophisticated style and her lips reddened, she might have been older. I had already seen the looks she got from people in the village. Paul Hourias grew tongue-tied and bashful when she was around. Even Jean-Benet Darius, who was an old man of nearly forty, and Guguste Ramondin or Raphaël at the café… Boys looked at her; I knew that. And she noticed them-from her first day at the collège she had been full of tales about the boys she met there. One week it might be Justin, who had such wonderful eyes, or Raymond, who made the whole class laugh, or Pierre-André, who could play chess, or Guillaume, whose parents moved from Paris last year… Thinking back I could even remember when those tales stopped. It must have been about the same time the German garrison moved in.
I gave an inward shrug of indifference. There was certainly a mystery of some kind, I told myself, but Reinette’s secrets rarely intrigued me.
Hauer was standing guard at the gate. I could see him better in daylight; a broad-faced German with an almost expressionless face. In a low voice he told us, “Upriver-about ten minutes,” speaking from the corner of his mouth, then waved at us in mock impatience, as if to send us packing. We got on our bikes again without giving him a second glance, even Reinette, which led me to think that Hauer could not be the object of her infatuation.
Less than ten minutes later we caught sight of Leibniz. At first I thought he was out of uniform, but then I simply saw that he had removed his jacket and boots and was dangling his feet over the parapet beneath which the sly brown Loire was rushing. He greeted us with a cheery wave and beckoned for us to join him. We dragged the bikes down the banking so that they would not be visible from the road, then came to sit beside him. He looked younger than I remembered, almost as young as Cassis, though he moved with a careless assurance that my brother would never have, however much he tried to achieve it.
Cassis and Reinette stared at him in silence, like children at the zoo watching some dangerous animal. Reinette was scarlet. Leibniz seemed unimpressed by our scrutiny and lit a cigarette, grinning.
“The widow Petit…” he said at last through a mouthful of smoke. “Very good.” He chuckled. “Parachute silk and a thousand other things, she was a real black market free-for-all.” He gave me a wink. “Good work, Backfisch.”
The others looked at me in surprise, but said nothing. I remained silent, torn between pleasure and anxiety at his approving words.
“I’ve had some luck this week,” continued Leibniz in the same tone. “Chewing gum, chocolate and”-he reached into his pocket and brought out a package-“this.”
This turned out to be a handkerchief, lace edged, which he handed to Reinette. My sister blushed scarlet with confusion.
Then he turned to me.
“And what about you, Backfisch, what is it you want?” He grinned. “Lipstick? Face cream? Silk stockings? No, that’s more your sister’s line. Doll? Teddy bear?”
He was mocking me gently, his eyes bright and filled with silvery reflections.
Now was the time to admit that my mention of Madame Petit had been nothing but a careless slip of the tongue. But Cassis was still looking at me with that expression of astonishment; Leibniz was smiling; and a gleam of an idea had come into my head.
I did not hesitate.
“Fishing tackle,” I said at once. “Proper good fishing tackle.” I paused and fixed him with an insolent look, staring him straight in the eyes. “And an orange.”
We met him again, in the same place, a week later. Cassis gave him a rumor about late-night gambling at Le Chat Rouget and a few words he’d overheard from Curé Traquet outside the cemetery about a secret cache of church silver.
But Leibniz seemed preoccupied.
“I had to keep this from the others,” he told me. “They might not have liked me giving it to you.”
From under the army jacket lying carelessly on the riverbank he drew out a narrow green-canvas bag about a meter long that made a small rattling sound as he pushed it toward me. “It’s for you,” he said as I hesitated.
In the bag was a fishing rod. Not a new one, but even I could see that it was a fine piece, dark bamboo worn almost black with age and a gleaming metal reel that spun beneath my fingers just as neatly as if it were on ball bearings. I gave a long, slow sigh of amazement.
“Is it… mine?” I asked, not daring quite to believe it.
Leibniz laughed, a bright, uncomplicated sound.
“Of course,” he said. “We fishermen have to stick together, don’t we?”
I touched the rod with tentative, eager fingers. The reel felt cool and slightly oily to the touch, as if had been packed in grease.
“But you’ll have to keep it safe, eh, Backfisch?” he told me. “No going telling your parents and friends. You do know how to keep a secret, don’t you?”
I nodded. “Of course.”
He smiled. His eyes were a clear, dark gray.
“Get that pike you were telling me about, eh?”
I nodded again, and he laughed.
“Believe me, with that rod you could catch a U-Boot.”
I looked at him critically for a moment, just to see how much he was teasing me. Clearly he was amused, but it was a kind mockery, I decided, and he had kept his side of the bargain. Only one thing troubled me.
“Madame Petit…” I began hesitantly. “Nothing very bad will happen to her, will it?”
Leibniz dragged on his cigarette, then flicked the stub into the water.
“I shouldn’t think so,” he said carelessly. “Not if she minds her mouth.” He gave me a sudden sharp look, which included Cassis and Reinette. “And you, all three of you. You keep all this to yourselves, all right?”
“Oh, one more thing for you.” He put his hand into his pocket. “You’ll have to share, I’m afraid. I could only find one.” And he held out an orange.
He was charming, you see. We were all charmed-Cassis less so than Reine and I, perhaps because he was the eldest and understood more about the dangers we were running-Reinette rosy-cheeked and shy and I… Well, perhaps it was I most of all. It began with the fishing rod, but there were a dozen other things, his accent, the lazy ways he had, the careless look of him and his laughter… Oh, he was a real charmer all right, not like Cassis’s son Yannick tried to be, with his brash ways and his weaselly eyes. No, Tomas Leibniz had a natural way with him, even for a lonely child with a headful of nonsense.
It was nothing I could put my finger on. Reine might have said that it was the way he looked at you without saying anything, or the way his eyes changed color-sometimes gray-green, sometimes brown-gray, like the river-or how he walked with his cap tilted back on his head and his hands in his pockets, like a boy playing truant from school… Cassis might have said that it was his reckless quality-the way he could swim the Loire at its widest point or hang upside down from the Lookout Post just as if he were a boy of fourteen, with a boy’s contempt for danger. He knew all about Les Laveuses before he even set foot there; he was a country lad from the Black Forest, and he was full of anecdotes about his family, his sisters, his brother, his plans. He was always making plans. There were days when everything he said seemed to begin with the same words-when I’m rich and the war is over… Oh, there was no end to what he’d do. He was the first adult we had ever met who still thought like a boy, planned like a boy, and maybe in the end that was what attracted us to him. He was one of us, that was all. He played by our rules.
He had killed one Englishman and two Frenchmen so far in the course of the war. He made no secret of it, but the way he told the story you would have sworn he had no choice. It could have been our father, I thought afterward. But even so, I would have forgiven him. I would have forgiven him anything.
Of course, I was guarded at first. We met him three times more, twice alone at the river, once in the cinema with the others, Hauer, Heinemann-squat and red-haired-and slow, fat Schwartz. Twice we sent notes via the boy at the newspaper stand, twice more we received cigarettes, magazines, books, chocolate and a packet of nylon stockings for Reinette. People are less wary of children, as a rule. They guard their tongues less. We gleaned more information that way than you could ever imagine, and we passed it all, on to Hauer, Heinemann, Schwartz and Leibniz. The other soldiers hardly spoke to us. Schwartz, who spoke little French, would sometimes leer at Reinette and whisper at her in guttural, greasy-sounding German. Hauer was stiff and awkward, and Heinemann was full of nervous energy, scratching incessantly at the reddish stubble that seemed an indelible part of his face… The others made me uneasy.
But not Tomas. Tomas was one of us. He was able to reach us in a way no one else did. It was nothing as obvious as our mother’s indifference or the loss of our father, or even the lack of playmates or the privations of war. We were barely aware of those things ourselves, living as we did in our savage little world of the imagination. We were certainly taken by surprise at how desperately we needed Tomas. Not for what he brought us, the chocolate and chewing gum and makeup and magazines. We needed someone to tell about our exploits, someone to impress, a fellow conspirator with the energy of youth and the polish of experience, a teller of finer stories than even Cassis could dream of. It didn’t happen overnight, of course. We were wild animals, just as Mother said, and we took some taming. He must have known that from the start, the clever way he set out to take us one by one, making each feel special… Even now, God help me, I can almost believe it. Even now.
I hid the rod in the treasure chest for safekeeping. I had to be careful when I used it, because everybody in Les Laveuses was apt to mind your business for you if you didn’t mind it yourself, and it wouldn’t take more than a chance comment to alert Mother. Paul knew, of course, but I told him that the rod had belonged to my father, and with the stammer he had, he was never one to gossip. In any case, if he ever suspected anything, he kept it to himself, and I was grateful for that.
July turned hot and sour, with thunderstorms every other day and the sky roiling mad and purple-gray over the river. At the end of the month the Loire burst its banks, washing all my traps and nets away downstream, then spilling down into Hourias’s cornfields, with the corn just yellow-green and three weeks from full ripeness. It rained almost every night that month, and lightning sheeted down like great crackling rolls of silver paper so that Reinette screamed and hid under her bed, and Cassis and I stood at the open window with our mouths open to see if we could catch radio signals on our teeth. Mother had more headaches than ever, and I only used the orange bag-revitalized now with the skin of the orange Tomas had given us-twice that month and into the next. The rest was her own problem, and she often slept badly and woke with a mouth full of barbed wire and not a kind thought in her head. On those days, I thought of Tomas like a starving man thinks of food. I think the others did the same.
The rain was hard on our fruit too. Apples and pears and plums swelled grotesquely then split and rotted right on the trees, and wasps squeezed into the sickly clefts so that the trees were brown with them and buzzing sluggishly. My mother did what she could. She covered some of her favorites with tarpaulins to keep the rain off, but even that was little use. The soil, baked hard and white by the June sun, turned to slush beneath the feet, and the trees stood in pools of water, rotting their exposed roots. Mother piled sawdust and earth around their bases to protect them from the rot, but it was no good. The fruit fell to the ground and made sweetish mud-soup. What could be retrieved we saved and made into green-fruit jam, but we all knew the harvest was spoiled before it even had a chance. Mother stopped talking to us altogether. In those weeks her mouth was perpetually set in a small white line, her eyes holes. The tic that heralded her headaches was almost permanent, and the level of pills in the jar in the bathroom diminished more rapidly than ever.
Market days were especially silent and cheerless. We sold what we could-harvests were bad all through the county, and there wasn’t a farmer along the Loire who hadn’t suffered-but beans, potatoes, carrots, squash, even tomatoes had sickened with the heat and the rain, and there was precious little to sell. Instead we took to selling our winter stocks, the preserves and dried meats and terrines and confits that Mother had made last time a pig was slaughtered, and because she was desperate, she treated every sale as if it were her last. Some days her look was so black and sour that customers turned tail and fled rather than buy from her, and I was left writhing in embarrassment for her — for us — while she stood stony-faced and unseeing, one finger at her temple like the barrel of a gun.
One week we arrived at the market to find Madame Petit’s shop boarded up. Monsieur Loup, the fishmonger, told me she just packed her things and went one day, giving no reason and leaving no forwarding address.
“Was it the Germans?” I demanded with a slight unease. “I mean, her being a Jew and everything?”
Monsieur Loup gave me a strange look.
“Don’t know anything about that,” he said. “I just know she upped and left one day. I never heard anything about the other thing, and if you’ve any sense you won’t go round telling anyone, either.”
His expression was so cool and disapproving that I apologized, abashed, and backed away, almost forgetting my packet of scraps.
My relief that Madame Petit had not been arrested was tempered with an odd feeling of disappointment. For a while I brooded in silence, then I began to make discreet inquiries in Angers and in the village concerning the people about whom we had passed on information. Madame Petit, Monsieur Toupet or Toubon, the barber opposite Le Chat Rouget who received so many parcels, the two men we had heard talking outside the Palais-Doré one Thursday after the film… Strangely enough, the idea that we might have passed on worthless information-perhaps to the amusement or scorn of Tomas and the others-troubled me more than the possibility of causing harm to any of the people we denounced.
I think Cassis and Reinette already knew the truth. But nine is a different continent from twelve and fourteen. Little by little I came to realize that not a single one of the people we had denounced had been arrested or even questioned, or a single one of the places we had named as suspect raided by the Germans. Even the mysterious disappearance of Monsieur Toubon or Toupet, the bad-tempered Latin teacher, was easily explained.
“Oh, he was called to go to his daughter’s wedding in Rennes,” said Monsieur Doux airily. “No mystery there, little puss. I delivered the invitation myself.”
I fretted about it for almost a month, until the uncertainty was like a barrel of wasps in my head, all buzzing at once. I thought about it when I was out fishing, or laying traps, or playing gunfights with Paul, or digging dens in the woods. I grew thinner. My mother looked at me critically and announced that I was growing so fast it was affecting my health. She took me to Docteur Lemaître, who prescribed a glass of red wine for me every day, but even this made no difference. I began to imagine people following me, talking about me. I lost my appetite. I imagined that somehow Tomas and the others might be secret members of the Resistance, even now taking steps to eliminate me. Finally I told Cassis about my worries.
We were alone at the Lookout Post. It had been raining again, and Reinette was at home with a head cold. I didn’t set out to tell him everything, but once I had started the words began to spill out of me like grain from a burst sack. There was no stopping them. I had the green bag with my fishing rod in one hand, and in a rage I flung it right out of the tree and into the bushes, where it fell in a tangle of blackberries.
“We’re not babies!” I yelled furiously. “Don’t they believe the things we tell them? Why did Tomas give me this”-a wild gesture at the distant fishing bag-“if I didn’t earn it?”
Cassis looked at me, bewildered.
“Anyone would think you wanted someone to get shot,” he said uncomfortably.
“Of course not.” My voice was sullen. “I just thought-”
“You never thought at all.” The tone was that of the old, superior Cassis, impatient and rather scornful. “You really think we’d help to get people locked up or shot? That’s what you think we’d do?”
He sounded shocked, but underneath I knew he was flattered.
That’s just what I think, I thought. If it suited you, Cassis, I’m sure that’s exactly what you’d do. I shrugged.
“You’re so naïve, Framboise,” said my brother loftily. “You’re really too young to be involved in something like this.”
It was then that I knew that even he hadn’t understood at the start. He was quicker than I was, but at the beginning he hadn’t known. On that first day at the cinema he’d really been afraid, sour with sweat and excitement. And later, talking to Tomas… I had seen fear in his eyes. Later, only later, had he understood the truth.
Cassis made a gesture of impatience and turned his gaze away.
“Blackmail!” he spat furiously into my face, starring me with spittle. “Don’t you get it? That’s all it is! Do you think they’re having an easy time with it, back in Germany? Do you think they’re any better off than we are? That their children have shoes, or chocolate, or any of that stuff? Don’t you think they might sometimes want those things too?”
I gaped at him.
“You never thought at all!” I knew that he was furious, not with my ignorance, but with his own. “It’s just the same over there, stupid!” he shouted. “They’re putting things away to send home. Getting to know stuff about people, then making them pay to keep quiet. You heard what he said about Madame Petit. ”A real black market free-for-all.“ You think they’d have let her go if he’d told anyone about it?” He was panting now, close to laughter. “Not on your life! Haven’t you ever heard of what they do to Jews in Paris? Haven’t you ever heard of the death camps?”
I shrugged, feeling stupid. Of course I had heard of these things. It was just that in Les Laveuses things were different. We’d all read about Nazi death camps, but in my mind they had got somehow tangled with the death ray from The War of the Worlds. Hitler had been muddled with the pictures of Charlie Chaplin from Reinette’s film magazines, fact fusing with folklore, rumor, fiction, newsreel broadcast melting into serial-story star-fighters from beyond the planet Mars and night fighters across the Rhine, gunslingers and firing squad, U-Boots and the Nautilus twenty thousand leagues under.
“Blackmail?” I repeated blankly.
“Business,” corrected Cassis in a sharp voice. “Do you think it’s fair that some people have chocolate-and coffee, and proper shoes, and magazines, and books-while others have to do without? Don’t you think they should pay for those privileges? Share a little of what they’ve got? And hypocrites-like Monsieur Toubon-and liars? Don’t you think they should pay too? It’s not as if they can’t afford it. It’s not as if anyone gets hurt.”
It might have been Tomas speaking. That made his words very difficult to ignore. Slowly I nodded.
I thought Cassis looked relieved.
“It isn’t even stealing,” he continued eagerly. “That black market stuff belongs to everyone. I’m just making sure that we all get our fair share of it.”
“Like Robin Hood.”
I nodded again. Put that way, it did seem perfectly fair and reasonable.
Satisfied, I went to retrieve my fishing bag from where it lay in the blackberry tangle, happy in the knowledge that I had earned it, after all.
It was maybe five months after Cassis died-four years after the Mamie Framboise business-that Yannick and Laure came back to Les Laveuses. It was summer, and my daughter Pistache was visiting with her two children, Prune and Ricot, and until then it was a happy time. The children were growing so fast and so sweet, just like their mother, Prune chocolate-eyed and curly-haired and Ricot tall and velvet-cheeked, and both of them so full of laughter and mischief that it almost breaks my heart to see them, it takes me back so. I swear I feel forty years younger every time they come, and that summer I taught them how to fish and bait traps and make caramel macaroons and green-fig jam, and Ricot and I read Robinson Crusoe and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea together, and I told Prune outrageous lies about the fish I’d caught, and we shivered at stories of Old Mother’s terrible gift.
“They used to say that if you caught her and set her free, she’d give you your heart’s desire, but if you saw her-even out of the corner of your eye-and didn’t catch her, something dreadful would happen to you.”
Prune looked at me with wide pansy-colored eyes, one thumb corked comfortingly in her mouth.
“What kind of a dreadful?” she whispered, awed.
I made my voice low and menacing.
“You’d die, sweetheart,” I told her softly. “Or someone else would. Someone you loved. Or something worse even than that. And in any case, even if you survived, Old Mother’s curse would follow you to the grave.”
Pistache gave me a quelling look.
“Maman, I don’t know why you want to go telling her that kind of thing,” she said reproachfully. “You want her to have nightmares and wet the bed?”
“I don’t wet the bed!” protested Prune. She looked at me expectantly, tugging at my hand. “Mémée, did you ever see Old Mother? Did you? Did you?”
Suddenly I felt cold, wishing I had told her another story. Pistache gave me a sharp look and made as if to lift Prune off my knee.
“Prunette, you just leave Mémée, alone now. It’s nearly bedtime, and you haven’t even brushed your teeth or-”
“Please, Mémée, did you? Did you see her?”
I hugged my granddaughter, and the coldness receded a little.
“Sweetheart, I fished for her during one entire summer. All that time I tried to catch her, with nets and line and pots and traps. I fixed them every day, checked them twice a day and more if I could.”
Prune looked at me with solemn eyes.
“You must really have wanted that wish, him?”
I nodded. “I suppose I must have.”
“And did you catch her?”
Her face glowed like a peony. She smelt of biscuit and cut grass, the wonderful warm, sweet scent of youth. Old people need to have youth about them, you know, to remember.
I smiled. “I did catch her.”
Her eyes were wide with excitement. She dropped her voice to a whisper.
“And what did you wish?”
“I didn’t make a wish, sweetheart,” I told her quietly.
“You mean she got away?”
I shook my head.
“No, I caught her all right.”
Pistache was watching me now, her face in shadow. Prune put her small plump hands on my face. Impatiently:
I looked at her for a moment.
“I didn’t throw her back,” I told her. “I caught her at last, but I didn’t let her go.”
Except that wasn’t quite right, I told myself then. Not quite true. And then I kissed my granddaughter and told her I’d tell her the rest later, that I didn’t know why I was telling her a load of old fishing stories anyway, and in spite of her protests, between coaxing and nonsense, we finally got her to bed. I thought about it that night, long after the others were asleep. I never had much trouble sleeping, but this time it seemed like hours before I could find any peace, and even then I dreamed of Old Mother down in the black water, and myself pulling, pulled, pulling, as if neither of us could bear ever to let go…
Anyway, it was soon after that they came. To the restaurant to begin with, almost humbly, like ordinary customers. They had the brochet angevin and the tourteau fromage. I watched them covertly from my post in the kitchen, but they behaved well and caused no trouble. They spoke to each other in low voices, made no unreasonable demands on the wine cellar, and for once refrained from calling me Mamie. Laure was charming, Yannick hearty; both were eager to please and to be pleased. I was somewhat relieved to see that they no longer touched and kissed each other so often in public, and I even unbent enough to talk to them for a while over coffee and petits fours.
Laure had aged in four years. She had lost weight-it may be the fashion, but it didn’t suit her at all-and her hair was a sleek copper helmet. She seemed edgy too, with a habit of rubbing her abdomen as if she had a pain there. As far as I could see, Yannick hadn’t changed at all.
The restaurant was doing well, he declared cheerfully. Plenty of money in the bank. They were planning a trip to the Bahamas in spring; they hadn’t had a holiday together in years. They spoke of Cassis with affection and-I thought-genuine regret.
I began to think I’d judged them too harshly.
I was wrong.
Later that week they called at the farm, when Pistache was about to put the children to bed. They brought presents for us all, sweets for Prune and Ricot, flowers for Pistache. My daughter looked at them with that expression of vacant sweetness which I know to be dislike, and which they no doubt took for stupidity. Laure watched the children with a curious insistence that I found unsettling; her eyes flicked constantly toward Prune, playing with some pine cones on the floor.
Yannick settled himself in an armchair by the fire. I was very conscious of Pistache sitting quietly nearby, and hoped my uninvited guests would leave soon. However, neither of them showed any desire to do so.
“The meal was simply wonderful,” said Yannick lazily. “That brochet-I don’t know what you did with it, but it was absolutely marvelous.”
“Sewage,” I told him pleasantly. “There’s so much of it pours into the river nowadays that the fish practically feed on nothing but. Loire caviar, we call it. Very rich in minerals.”
Laure looked at me, startled. Then Yannick gave his little laugh-hé, hé, hé-and she joined him.
“Mamie likes her joke, hé, hé. Loire caviar. You really are a tease, darling.”
But I noticed they never ordered pike again.
When Pistache had put the children to bed, Yannick and Laure began to talk about Cassis. Harmless stuff at first-how Papa would have loved to see his niece and her children.
“He was always saying how much he wanted us to have children,” said Yannick. “But at that stage in Laure’s career-”
Laure interrupted him.
“There’ll be plenty of time for that,” she said, almost harshly. “I’m not so old, am I?”
I shook my head.
“Of course not.”
“And of course, at that time there was the added expense of looking after Papa to think about. He had hardly anything left, Mamie,” said Yannick, biting into one of my sablés. “All he had came from us. Even his house.”
I could believe it. Cassis was never one to hoard wealth. He slid it through his fingers in smoke, or more often into his belly. Cassis was always his own best customer in the Paris days.
“Of course we wouldn’t think of begrudging him that.” Laure’s voice was soft. “We were very fond of poor Papa, weren’t we, chéri?”
Yannick nodded with more enthusiasm than sincerity.
“Oh, yes. Very fond. And of course… such a generous man. Never felt any resentment at all about… this house, or the inheritance, or anything. Extraordinary.”
He glanced at me then, a sharp ratty slice of a look.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I was up at once, almost spilling my coffee, still very conscious of Pistache sitting next to me, listening. I had never told my daughters about Reinette or Cassis. They never met. As far as they knew I was an only child. And I had never spoken a word about my mother.
Yannick looked sheepish.
“Well, Mamie, you know he was really supposed to inherit the house-”
“Not that we blame you-”
“But he was the eldest, and under your mother’s will-”
“Now wait a minute!” I tried to keep the shrillness from my voice but for a moment I sounded just like my mother, and I saw Pistache wince. “I paid Cassis good money for this house,” I said in a lower tone. “It was only a shell after the fire, anyway, all burnt out with the rafters poking through the slates. He could never have lived in it, wouldn’t have wanted to either. I paid good money, more than I could afford, and-”
“Shh. It’s all right.” Laure glared at her husband. “No one’s suggesting your agreement was in any way improper.”
That’s a Laure word all right, plummy, self-satisfied and with just the right amount of skepticism. I could feel my hand tightening around the rim of my coffee cup, printing bright little points of burn on my fingertips.
“But you have to see it from our point of view.” That was Yannick, his broad face gleaming. “Our grandmother’s legacy…”
I didn’t like the way the conversation was heading. I especially hated Pistache’s presence, her round eyes taking everything in.
“You never even knew my mother, any of you,” I interrupted harshly.
“That’s not the point, Mamie,” said Yannick quickly. “The point is that there were three of you. And the legacy was divided into three. That’s right, isn’t it?”
I nodded cautiously.
“But now since poor Papa has passed away, we have to ask ourselves whether the informal arrangement you two made between you is entirely fair to the remaining members of the family.”
His tone was casual, but I could see the gleam in his eyes, and I shouted out, suddenly furious.
“What ”informal arrangement‘? I told you, I paid good money — I signed papers…“
Laure put her hand on my arm.
“Yannick didn’t mean to upset you, Mamie.”
“No one’s upset me,” I said stonily.
Yannick ignored that and continued:
“It’s just that some people might think that an agreement such as you made with poor Papa — a sick man desperate for cash — ”
I could see Laure was watching Pistache, and cursed under my breath.
“Besides the unclaimed third that should have belonged to Tante Reine — ”
The fortune under the cellar floor. Ten cases of Bordeaux laid down the year she was born, tiled over and cemented into place against the Germans and what came later, worth a thousand francs or more per bottle today, I daresay, all awaiting collection. Damn. Cassis could never keep his mouth shut when it was needed. I interrupted harshly.
“That’s being kept for her. I haven’t touched any of it.”
“Of course not, Mamie. All the same…” Yannick grinned unhappily, looking so like my brother that it almost hurt. I glanced briefly again at Pistache, sitting bolt upright in her chair, face expressionless. “All the same, you have to admit that Tante Reine is hardly in any position to claim it now, and don’t you think it would be fairer to all concerned — ”
“All that belongs to Reine,” I said flatly. “I won’t touch it. And I wouldn’t give it to you if I could. Does that answer your question?”
Laure turned to me then. In her black dress, with the yellow lamplight on her face, I thought she looked quite ill.
“I’m sorry,” she said, with a meaningful glance at Yannick. “This was never meant to be about money. Obviously we wouldn’t expect you to give up your home-or any part of Tante Reine’s inheritance. If either of us gave the impression…”
I shook my head, bewildered.
“Then what on earth was all that-”
Laure interrupted, her eyes gleaming.
“There was a book…”
“A book?” I repeated.
“Papa told us all about it,” he said. “You showed it to him.”
“A recipe book,” said Laure with strange calmness. “You must have all the recipes by heart already. If we could only see it… borrow it…”
“Of course, we’d pay for anything we used,” added Yannick hastily. “Think of it as a way to keep the Dartigen name alive.”
It must have been that-that name-which did it. Confusion, fear and disbelief warred in me for a while, but at the mention of that name a great spike of terror pierced me and I swept the coffee cups off the table, where they shattered against my mother’s terra-cotta tiles. I could see Pistache looking at me strangely, but could do nothing but follow the seam of my rage.
My voice rose like a red kite in the little room, and for a second I left my body and looked down upon myself emotionlessly, a drab sharp-faced woman in a gray dress, her hair drawn fiercely back into a knot at the back of her head. I saw strange comprehension in my daughter’s eyes and veiled hostility in the faces of my nephew and niece, then the rage slammed into place again and I lost myself for a while:
“I know what you want!” I snarled. “If you can’t have Mamie Framboise, then you’ll settle for Mamie Mirabelle. Is that it?” My breath tore through me like barbed wire. “Well, I don’t know what Cassis told you, but he had no business, and nor have you. That old story’s dead. She’s dead, and you’ll get none of it from me, not if you were to wait fifty years for it!”
I was out of breath now, and my throat hurt from shouting. I picked up their most recent present-a box of linen handkerchiefs lying on the kitchen table in their silver wrapping-and pushed it fiercely at Laure.
“So you can take your bribes,” I yelled hoarsely, “and you can stick them up your fancy ass with your Paris menus and your tangy apricot coulis and your poor old Papas-”
For a second our eyes met and I saw hers unveiled at last and filled with spite.
“I could talk to my lawyer-” she began.
I began to laugh.
“That’s right!” I hooted. “Your lawyer! It always comes to that in the end, doesn’t it?” I yarked savage laughter. “Your lawyer!”
Yannick tried to calm her down, his eyes bright with alarm.
“Now, chérie… you know how we — ”
Laure turned on him savagely.
“Get your fucking hands off me!”
I howled laughter, cramping my stomach. Points of darkness danced before my eyes. Laure’s eyes shot me with hate — shrapnel, then she recovered.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice was chilly. “You don’t know how important this is to me. My career…”
Yannick was trying to steer her toward the door, keeping a wary eye on me.
“No one meant to upset you, Mamie,” he said hastily. “We’ll come back when you’re more reasonable — it’s not as if we were asking to keep the book…”
Words like spilled cards sliding. I laughed harder. The terror in me grew, but I could not control my laughter, and even when they had gone — the screech of their Mercedes’ tires oddly furtive in the night — I still felt the occasional spasm, souring into half — sobs as the adrenaline fell from me, leaving me feeling shaken and old.
Pistache was looking at me, her face unreadable. Prune’s face appeared round the bedroom door.
“Mémée? What’s wrong?”
“Go to bed, sweetheart.” said Pistache quickly. “It’s all right. It’s nothing.”
Prune looked doubtful.
“Why was Mémée shouting?”
“Nothing.” Her voice was sharp now, anxious. “Go to bed!”
Prune turned reluctantly. Pistache closed the door.
We sat in silence.
I knew she’d talk when she was ready, and I knew better than to rush her. She looks sweet enough, but there’s a stubborn streak in her all the same. I know it well; I have it too. Instead I washed the dishes and the cups, dried them and put them away. After that I took out a book and pretended to read.
After a while Pistache spoke.
“What did they mean about a legacy?”
I shrugged. “Nothing. Cassis made out he was a rich man so that they’d look after him in his old age. They should have known better. That’s all.”
I hoped she might leave it at that, but there was a stubborn line between her eyes that promised trouble.
“I never even knew I had an uncle,” she said tonelessly.
“We weren’t close.”
Silence. I could see her going over it in her mind and I wished I could stop the circle of her thoughts, but knew I couldn’t.
“Yannick’s very like him,” I told her, trying for lightness. “Handsome and feckless. And his wife leads him like a dancing bear.”
I demonstrated mincingly, hoping for a smile, but if anything her thoughtful look deepened.
“They seemed to think you’d cheated him somehow,” she said. “Bought him out, when he was ill.”
I forced myself to pause. Anger at this stage would not help anyone.
“Pistache,” I said patiently. “Don’t believe everything those two tell you. Cassis wasn’t ill, at least, not in the way you think. He drank himself into bankruptcy, left his wife and son, sold off the farm to pay his debts…”
She watched me curiously, and I had to make an effort to keep my voice from rising.
“Look, that was all a long time ago. It’s over. My brother’s dead.”
“Laure said there was a sister.”
I nodded. “Reine-Claude.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We weren’t — ”
“Close. I gathered.”
Her voice was small and flat-sounding.
Fear pricked at me again, and I said more sharply than I had intended:
“So? You understand that, don’t you? After all, you and Noisette were never — ”
I bit the words short, but too late. I saw her flinch and cursed myself inwardly.
“No. But at least I tried. For you.”
Damn. I’d forgotten how sensitive she was. All those years I took her for the quiet one, watching my other daughter grow wilder and more willful day by day… Yes, Noisette was always my favorite. But until now I thought I’d hidden it better. If she had been Prune I would have put my arms around her, but to see her now, this calm, close-faced woman with her small, hurt smile and sleepy cat’s eyes… I thought of Noisette, and how, out of pride and stubbornness, I had made her a stranger to me. I tried to explain.
“We were separated a long time ago,” I told her. “After… the war. My mother was… ill… and we went to live with different relatives. We didn’t keep in touch.” It was almost true, at least as close as I could bear to tell her. “Reine went to… work… in Paris. She… fell ill too. She’s in a private hospital near Paris. I visited her once, but…”
How could I explain? The institution-stink of the place, boiled cabbage and laundry and sickness, televisions blaring in soft rooms full of lost people who wept when they didn’t like the stewed apples and who sometimes shouted at one another with unexpected viciousness, flailing their fists helplessly and pushing each other against the pale green walls. There had been a man in a wheelchair-a relatively young man with a face like a scarred fist and rolling, hopeless eyes-who had screamed I don’t like it here! I don’t like it here! during the whole of my visit, until his voice faded into a drone and even I found myself ignoring his distress. One woman stood in a corner with her face to the wall and wept, unheeded. And the woman on the bed-the huge bloated thing with the dyed hair, round white thighs and arms cool and soft as fresh dough, smiling serenely to herself and murmuring… Only the voice was the same, without which I would never have believed it, a little-girl’s voice chiming nonsense syllables, the eyes as blank and round as an owl’s. I made myself touch her.
Again that vapid smile, the little nod, as if in her dreams she were a queen and I her subject. She had forgotten her name, the nurse told me quietly, but she was happy enough; she had her “good days” and she loved the television, especially the cartoons, and to have her hair brushed while the radio played…
“Of course we still have our bad spells,” said the nurse, and I froze at the words, feeling something shrivel in my stomach to a bright hard knot of terror. “We wake in the night”-strange, that pronoun, as if by taking on part of the woman’s identity she might be able to somehow share in the experience of being old and mad-“and sometimes we have our little tantrums, don’t we?” She smiled brightly at me, a young blonde of twenty or so, and I hated her so much in that moment for her youth and cheery ignorance that I almost smiled back.
I felt the same smile on my face as I looked at my daughter, and hated myself for it. I tried again for a lighter note.
“You know what it’s like,” I said apologetically. “Can’t bear old people… hospitals. I sent some money…”
It was the wrong thing to say. Sometimes everything you say is the wrong thing. My mother knew that.
“Money,” said Pistache contemptuously. “Is that all people care about?”
She went to bed soon after, and nothing was right again between us that summer. Near the end of the holidays she left a little earlier than usual, pleading fatigue and the approach of the school term, but I could see something was wrong. I tried to talk about it to her once or twice, but it was no good. She remained distant, her eyes wary. I noticed she was receiving a lot of mail, but I thought nothing of it until much later. My mind was on other things.
A few days after the business with Yannick and Laure, the Snack-Wagon arrived. A large trailer-van brought it and parked its load on the grass verge just opposite Crêpe Framboise. A young man in a red-and-yellow paper hat got out. I was busy with customers at the time and paid little attention, so that when I looked out again later that afternoon I was surprised to see that the van had gone, leaving on the verge a small trailer upon which the words Super-Snaсk were painted in bright red capitals. I came out of the shop to take a closer look. The trailer seemed abandoned, though the shutters that secured it were heavily chained and padlocked. I knocked on the door. There was no answer.
The next day the Snack-Wagon opened. I noticed it at about eleven thirty, when my first customers usually begin to arrive. The shutters opened to reveal a counter above which a red-and-yellow awning gaped. Then a string of bunting, each colored flag bearing the name of a dish and a price — steak-frites, 17F; saucisse-frites, 14F — and finally a number of brightly colored posters advertising Super-Snaсks or Big Value Burgers and a variety of soft drinks.
“Looks like you’ve got competition,” said Paul Hourias, exactly on time at twelve fifteen.
I didn’t ask him what he wanted to order — he always orders the special and a demi — you could set your watch by him. He never says much, just sits in his usual place by the window and eats and watches the road. I decided he was making one of his rare jokes.
“Competition!” I repeated derisively. “Monsieur Hourias, the day Crêpe Framboise has to compete with a grease merchant in a trailer is the day I pack up my pots and pans for good.”
Paul chuckled. The day’s special was grilled sardines, one of his favorites, with a basket of my walnut bread, and he ate reflectively, watching the road, as usual, as he did. The presence of the Snack-Wagon did not seem to affect the number of clients in the crêperie, and for the next two hours I was busy overseeing the kitchen while my waitress, Lise, took the orders. When I looked out again there were a couple of people at the Snack-Wagon, but they were youngsters, not regulars of mine, a girl and a boy, with cones of chips in their hands. I shrugged. I could live with that.
The next day there were a dozen of them, all youngsters, and a radio playing raucous music at maximum volume. In spite of the day’s heat I closed the crêperie door, but even so the tinny ghosts of guitars and drums marched through the glass, and Marie Fenouil and Charlotte Dupré, both regulars, complained about the heat and the noise.
The day after that the crowd was larger, the music louder, and I complained. Marching up to the Snack-Wagon at eleven forty, I was immediately enswarmed in adolescents, some of whom I recognized, but many out-of-towners too, girls in halter tops and summer skirts or jeans, young men with turned-up collars and motorcycle boots with jingling buckles. I could see several motorbikes already propped up against the sides of the Snack-Wagon, and there was a smell of gas mingled in among those of frying and beer. A young girl with cropped hair and a pierced nose looked at me insolently as I marched up to the counter, then thrust her elbow in front of me, just missing my face.
“Waitcher turn, hé, mémère,” she said smartly, through a mouthful of gum. “Can’tcher see there’s people waiting?”
“Oh, is that what you’re doing, sweetheart?” I snapped. “I thought you were just looking for business.”
The girl gaped at me, and I elbowed past her without a second glance. Mirabelle Dartigen, whatever else she might have done, never raised her children to mince their words.
The counter was high, and I found myself looking up at a young man of about twenty-five, good-looking in a dirty-blond sharpish kind of way, hair past his collar and a single gold earring-a cross, I think-dangling. Eyes that might have done something for me forty years ago, but nowadays I’m too old and too particular. I think that old clock stopped ticking just about the same time men stopped wearing hats. Come to think of it, he looked a little familiar, but I wasn’t thinking about that then.
Of course, he already knew me.
“Good morning, Madame Simon,” he said in a polite, ironic voice. “What can I do for you? I’ve got a lovely burger américain if you’d care to try it.”
I was angry, but I tried not to show it. His smile showed that he was expecting trouble, and that he felt confident to withstand it. I gave him one of my sweetest.
“Not today, thank you,” I told him. “But I would be grateful if you’d consider turning your radio down. My customers-”
“But of course.” His voice was smooth and cultured, his eyes gleaming porcelain blue. “I had no idea I was disturbing anyone.”
Beside me, the girl with the pierced nose made an incredulous sound. I heard her say to a companion, another girl in a halter and shorts so small that fleshy half-moons showed beneath the hem,
“Did you hear what she said to me? Did you hear?”
The young blond man smiled, and reluctantly I saw charm there, and intelligence, and something oh-so-familiar that needled and nibbled. Leaning over to turn the music down. Gold chain around the neck. Sweat stains on a gray T-shirt. Hands too smooth for a cook, oh there was something wrong about him, about the whole thing, and for the first time I felt not anger but a kind of fear…
Solicitous: “Is that all right for you, Madame Simon?”
“I’d hate to be thought an intrusive neighbor.”
The words were all right, but I still couldn’t shake the thought that there was something wrong, some mockery in that cool, courteous tone that I’d missed somehow, and though I’d got what I wanted, I fled the place, almost turning my ankle on the gravel of the verge, with the press of young bodies against me — there must have been forty of them now, maybe more — and the sound of their voices drowning me. I got out quickly — I never liked to be touched — and as I went back into Crêpe Framboise I heard the sound of raucous laughter, as if he had waited for me to leave to make some comment. I looked back sharply, but he had his back to me by then and was flipping a row of burgers with practiced ease.
But still that feeling of wrongness remained. I found myself watching out of the window more than usual, and when Marie Fenouil and Charlotte Dupré, the customers who had complained about noise the previous day, did not arrive at their usual time, I began to feel edgy. It might be nothing, I told myself. There was only a single empty table, after all. The majority of my customers was here as usual. And yet I found myself watching the Snack-Wagon with a reluctant fascination, watching him as he worked, watching the crowd that remained by the roadside, young people eating from paper cones and polystyrene boxes while he held court… He seemed on friendly terms with everyone. Half a dozen girls — the one with the pierced nose among them — propped up the counter, some with cans of soda in their hands. Others lolled in languid attitudes nearby, and there was much studied perking-out of bosoms and flicking of hips. Those eyes, it seemed, had touched softer hearts than mine.
At twelve thirty I heard the sound of motorcycles from the kitchen. A terrible sound, like pneumatic drills in unison, and I dropped the skillet with which I was turning a row of bolets farcis to run out into the road. The sound was unbearable. I clapped my hands over my ears and even then felt sharp pain lancing my eardrums, made sensitive from so many years of diving in the old Loire. Five motorcycles, which I had last seen propped against the sides of the Snack-Wagon, were now parked on the road just opposite, and their owners-three with girls perched delicately behind them-were revving up to leave, each trying to outdo the rest in volume and attitude. I shouted at them, but could hear nothing but the tortured screech of the machines. Some of the young customers at the Snack-Wagon laughed and clapped. I waved my arms furiously, unable to make myself heard against the din, and the riders saluted me mockingly, one rising onto his back wheels like a prancing horse in a redoubled gale of sound.
The whole performance lasted five minutes, by which time my bolets were burnt and my ears ringing painfully, and my temper risen to the melting point. There was no time to complain again to the owner of the Snack-Wagon, though I promised myself that I would as soon as my customers left. By then, however, the wagon had closed, and though I thumped furiously against the shutters, no one answered.
The next day the music was playing again.
I ignored it for as long as I could, then stamped off to complain. There were even more people than before, and a number of them, recognizing me, made insolent comments as I pushed my way through the little crowd. Too angry to be polite today, I glared up at the Snack-Wagon’s owner and spat:
“I thought we had an agreement!”
He gave me a smile as wide and as gleaming as a barn door. Inquiringly:
But I was in no mood to be cajoled.
“Don’t go trying to pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. I want the music off, right now!”
Polite as always, and now looking slightly hurt at my ferocious attack, he switched the music off.
“But of course, madame. I didn’t mean to offend you. If we’re to be such close neighbors we should try to accommodate each other.”
For a few seconds I was too angry even to hear the warning bell.
“What do you mean, ”close neighbors‘?“ I managed at last. ”How long do you imagine you’re going to be staying here?“
He shrugged. “Who knows?” His voice was silky. “You know the catering business, madame. Such an unpredictable thing. Crowds one day-the next, half empty. Who knows what may happen?”
The warning bells had grown to a jangle now, and I was beginning to feel cold.
“Your trailer’s on a public road,” I said dryly. “I imagine the police will move you on as soon as they spot you.”
He shook his head.
“I’ve got permission to be here, on the verge,” he told me gently. “All my papers bear scrutiny.” Then he looked at me with that insolent politeness of his. “Do yours, madame, I wonder?”
I kept my face stony, while my heart flipped over like a dying fish. He knew something. The thought spun dizzily in my head. Oh God. He knew something. I ignored his question.
“Another thing.” I was pleased with my voice, with its low, sharp quality. The voice of a woman who is not afraid. Beneath my ribs my heart beat faster. “Yesterday there was a commotion with motorcycles. If you allow your friends to disturb my customers again, then I shall report you for creating a public nuisance. I’m sure the police-”
“I’m sure the police will tell you that the cyclists themselves are responsible, not I.” He sounded amused. “Really, madame, I’m trying to be reasonable, but threats and accusations aren’t going to solve the problem…”
I left feeling strangely culpable, as if I, and not he, had made the threats. That night I slept fitfully, and in the morning snapped at Prune for spilling her milk, and at Ricot for playing soccer too close to the kitchen garden. Pistache looked at me oddly — we had barely spoken since the night of Yannick’s visit — and asked if I felt all right.
“It’s nothing,” I said shortly, and returned to the kitchen in silence.
For the next few days the situation gradually worsened. There was no music for two days, then the music began again, louder than ever. Several times the gang of motorcyclists called, each time revving violently as they arrived and left, and doing laps around the block where they raced one another and uttered long ululating cries. The group of regulars at the Snack-Wagon showed no sign of diminishing, and every day I spent longer and longer picking up discarded cans and papers from the sides of the road. Worse still the wagon began to open in the evenings too, from seven until midnight — coincidentally, these were identical to my own hours-and I began to fear the sound of the wagon’s generator as it powered up, knowing that my quiet crêperie would soon be facing an ever-growing street party. A pink neon strip above the wagon’s counter announced, Chez Luc, Sandwiches-Snacks-Frites, and the fairground smells of frying and beer and sweet hot waffles filled the soft night air.
Some of my customers complained. Some simply stayed away. By the end of the week, seven of my regulars had seemingly stopped coming altogether and the place was half empty on weekdays. On Saturday a group of nine came from Angers, but the noise was especially bad that evening, and they looked nervously at the crowd at the roadside where their cars were parked, finally leaving without dessert or coffee and with the conspicuous absence of a tip.
This couldn’t go on.
Les Laveuses has no police station, but there is one gendarme, Louis Ramondin-François’s grandson-though I never had much to do with him, he being from one of the Families. A man in his late thirties, lately divorced following a too-early marriage to a local girl, with the look of his uncle Guilherm, the one with the wooden leg. I didn’t want to talk to him now, but I could feel everything slipping away from me, pulling me apart in every direction, and I needed help.
I explained the situation with the Snack-Wagon. I told him about the noise, the litter, my customers, the motorcycles. He listened with the look of an indulgent young man talking to a fussy grandmother, nodding and smiling so that I longed to knock heads with him. Then he told me-in the cheery, patient tone the young reserve for the deaf and the elderly-that no law was as yet being infringed. Crêpe Framboise was on a main road, he explained. Things had changed since I first moved to the village. He might be able to talk to Luc, but I must try to understand…
Oh, I understood. I saw him later by the Snack-Wagon, out of uniform, chatting with a pretty girl in a white T-shirt and jeans. He had a can of Stella in one hand and a sugared waffle in the other. Luc gave me one of his satirical smiles as I went by with my shopping basket, and I ignored them both. I understood.
In the days that followed, business at Crêpe Framboise slumped even more. The place was only half full now, even on Saturday nights, and weekday lunchtimes were even poorer. Paul stayed, though, loyal Paul with his special every day and his demi, and out of simple gratitude I began to give him a beer on the house, though he never asked for more than the single glass.
Lise told me that Luc-our Snack-Wagon owner-was staying over at the Café de La Mauvaise Réputation, where they still rent a few rooms.
“I don’t know where he’s from,” she told me. “Angers, I think. He’s paid his rent three months in advance, so it looks as if he’s planning to stay.”
Three months. That would take us almost to December. I wondered whether his clientele would be as keen when the first frost came. It was always a low season for me, with only a few regulars to keep things going, and I knew that with things as they were I might not even be able to count on those. Summer was my high time, and in those holiday months I usually managed to set aside enough money to make me comfortable until the spring. But this summer… As things were at present, I told myself coolly, I might make a loss. It was all right; I had money put away, but there was Lise’s wage, plus the money I sent for Reine, feed for the animals, stores, fuel, machine rental… And with autumn coming soon there would be the laborers to pay, the apple pickers and Michel Hourias with his combine, though I could sell the grain and the cider in Angers to tide myself over.
Still, it might be hard. For some time I fretted uselessly over figures and estimates. I forgot to play with my grandchildren, and for the first time wished that Pistache had not come for the summer. She stayed another week, then left with Ricot and Prune, and I could see in her eyes that she felt I was unreasonable, but I could not find enough warmth in me to tell her what I felt. There was a cold hard place where my love for her should have been, a hard dry place like the stone in a fruit.
I held her briefly as we said good-bye, and turned away dry-eyed. Prune gave me a bunch of flowers she had picked in the fields, and for a moment a sudden terror overwhelmed me. I was behaving like my mother, I told myself. Stern and impassive, but secretly filled with fears and insecurities. I wanted to reach out to my daughter, to explain that it wasn’t anything she had done-but somehow I couldn’t. We were always raised to keep things to ourselves. It isn’t a habit that can be easily broken.
And so the weeks passed. I spoke to Luc again on several occasions, but met with nothing but his ironic civility. I could not shake the thought that he was familiar somehow, but could not place where I might have seen him before. I tried to find out his surname in the hope that it might give me a clue, but he paid cash at La Mauvaise Réputation and when I went there the café seemed full of the out-of-towners who haunted the Snack-Wagon. There were a few locals too: Mirielle Dupré and the two Lelac boys with Alain Lecoz, but mostly they were out-of-towners, pert-looking girls with their designer jeans and halters, young men in cycle leathers or Lycra shorts. I noticed that young Brassaud had added a jukebox and a pool table to his assortment of shabby slot machines-it seemed that not all trade had been bad in Les Laveuses.
Perhaps that was why support for my campaign was so halfhearted. Crêpe Framboise is at the far side of the village, on the Angers road. The farm was always isolated from the others, and there are no other houses for half a kilometer into the village. Only the church and the post office are within any kind of hearing distance, and you can guess that Luc kept his silence when there was a service. Even Lise, who knew what it was doing to our business, could make excuses for him. I complained to Louis Ramondin twice more, but I might as well have spoken to the cat, for all the use he was to me.
The man really wasn’t hurting anyone, he said firmly. If he broke the law, then perhaps something could be done. Otherwise, I was to let the man get on with running his business. Did I understand?
It was then the other affair began. Little things at first. One night it was fireworks going off somewhere in the street. Then motorcycles revving up outside my door at two in the morning. Litter tipped onto my doorstep during the night. A pane of my glass door broken. One night a motorcyclist rode about in my big field and made figure eights and skid marks and crazy loops all through my ripening wheat. Little things. Nuisances. Nothing you could tie down to him, or even to the out-of-towners he brought in his wake. Then someone opened the door of the henhouse and a fox got in and killed every one of those nice brown Polands of mine. Ten pullets, good layers all of them, all gone in a single night. I told Louis-he was supposed to deal with thieves and trespassers-but he practically accused me of forgetting the door myself.
“Don’t you think perhaps it might have just… swung open in the night?”
He gave me his big friendly countryman’s smile, as if maybe he could smile my poor hens back to life. I gave him a sharp look.
“Locked doors don’t just swing open,” I told him tartly. “And it takes a clever fox to cut open a padlock. Someone mean did that on purpose, Louis Ramondin, and you’re paid to find out who.”
Louis looked shifty and muttered something under his breath.
“What did you say?” I asked sharply. “There’s nothing wrong with my ears, young Louis, and you’d better believe it. Why, I remember when-”
I bit off the end of the sentence in a hurry. I’d been about to say that I remembered his old granddaddy snoring in church, drunk as a lord and with piss down his pants, hidden inside the confessional during the Easter service, but that was nothing la veuve Simon would ever have known about, and I felt cold to think that I might have given myself away with a piece of stupid gossip. You understand now why I didn’t have more to do with the Families than I could help.
Anyway, Louis finally agreed to have a look round the farm, but he didn’t find anything, and I just got on with things as best I could. The loss of the hens was a blow, though. I couldn’t afford to replace them-besides, who was to say it might not happen again? — so I had to buy eggs from the old Hourias farm, now owned by a couple named Pommeau who grew sweet corn and sunflowers, which they sold upriver to the processing plant.
I knew Luc was behind what was happening. I knew it but I couldn’t prove anything, and it was driving me half crazy. Worse, I didn’t know why he was doing it, and my rage grew until it was like a cider press squeezing my old head like an apple about ripe and ready to burst. The night after the fox in the henhouse I took to sitting up at my darkened window with my shotgun slung across my chest, and a strange sight it must have been to anyone who saw me in my nightdress and my autumn coat, keeping watch over my yard. I bought some new padlocks for the gates and the paddock, and I stood guard night after night waiting for someone to come calling, but no one came. The bastard must have known what I was doing, though how he could have guessed I don’t know. I was beginning to think he could see right into my mind.
It didn’t take long for sleeplessness to take its toll on me. I began to lose concentration during the daytime. I forgot recipes. I couldn’t remember whether I’d already salted the omelette, and salted it twice or not at all. I cut myself seriously as I was chopping onions, only realizing I’d been asleep on my feet when I awoke with a handful of blood and one of my fingers gaping. I was abrupt with my remaining customers, and even though the loud music and the motorcycles seemed to have quieted down a little, word must have got around, because the regulars I had lost didn’t come back. Oh, I wasn’t entirely alone. I did have a few friends who took my part, but the deep reserve-the constant feeling of suspicion-that had made Mirabelle Dartigen such a stranger in the village must be in my blood too. I refused to be pitied. My anger alienated my friends and frightened my customers away. I existed on rage and adrenaline alone.
Oddly enough, it was Paul who finally put a stop to it. Some weekday lunchtimes he was my only customer, and he was regular as the church clock, staying for exactly an hour, his dog lying obediently under the chair, watching the road in silence as he ate. He might have been deaf, for all the notice he took of the Snack-Wagon, and he rarely said anything to me except hello and good-bye.
One day he came in but didn’t sit down at his usual table, and I knew something was wrong. It was a week after the fox in the henhouse, and I was dog-tired. My left hand was bound up in thick bandage after I’d cut myself, and I’d had to ask Lise to prepare the vegetables for the soup. I still insisted on making the pastry myself-imagine having to make pastry with a plastic bag mittened over one hand-and it was hard work. Standing half asleep on my feet at the kitchen door, I barely returned Paul’s greeting. He looked at me sideways, taking off his beret and stubbing out his small black cigarette on the doorstep.
“Bonjour, Madame Simon.”
I nodded and tried to smile. The fatigue was like a sparkling gray blanket over everything. His words were a yawning of vowels in a tunnel. His dog went to lie under their table at the window, but Paul stayed standing, his beret in one hand.
“You don’t look well,” he observed in his slow way.
“I’m all right,” I said shortly. “I didn’t sleep too well last night, that’s all.”
“Or any night this month, I’d say,” said Paul. “What is it, insomnia?”
I gave him a sharpish look. “Your dinner’s on the table,” I said. “Chicken fricassée and peas. I won’t be heating it up for you if it gets cold.”
He gave a sleepy smile.
“You’re beginning to sound like a wife, Madame Simon. People will talk.”
I decided that this was one of his jokes and ignored it.
“Perhaps I can help,” insisted Paul. “It isn’t right for them to treat you this way. Somebody ought to do something about it.”
“Please don’t trouble yourself, monsieur.”
After so many broken nights I could feel tears coming closer to the surface by the day, and even this simple, kind talk brought a stinging to my eyes. I made my voice dry and sarcastic to compensate, and looked pointedly in the opposite direction. “I can deal with it perfectly well by myself.”
Paul remained unquelled.
“You can trust me, you know,” he said quietly. “You should know that by now. All this time…”
I looked at him then, and suddenly I knew.
“It’s all right. I haven’t told anyone, have I?”
Silence. The truth stretched between us like a string of chewing gum.
I shook my head. “No. You haven’t.”
“Well, then.” He took a step toward me. “You never would take help when you needed it, not even in the old days.” Pause. “You haven’t changed that much, Framboise.”
Funny. I thought I had.
“When did you guess?” I asked at last.
“Didn’t take long,” he said laconically. “Probably the first time I tasted that kouign amann of your mother’s. Or maybe it was the pike. Never could forget a good recipe, could I?”
And he smiled again beneath his drooping mustache, an expression that was both sweet and kind and unutterably sad at the same time.
“It must have been hard,” he commented.
The stinging at my eyes was almost unbearable now. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
He nodded. “I’m not a talker,” he said simply.
He sat down then to eat his fricassée, stopping occasionally to look at me and smile, and after a while I sat down next to him-after all, we were alone in the place-and poured myself a glass of Gros-Plant. We sat in silence for a time. After a few minutes I laid my head down on the tabletop and wept quietly. The only sounds were my weeping and those of Paul’s cutlery as he ate reflectively, not looking at me, not reacting. But I knew his silence was kind.
When I had finished I wiped my face carefully on my apron.
“I think I’d like to talk now,” I said.
Paul is a good listener. I told him things I never meant to tell a living soul, and he listened in silence, nodding occasionally. I told him about Yannick and Laure, about Pistache and how I had let her go without a word, about the hens, the sleepless nights, and how the sound of the generator made me feel as if ants were crawling inside my skull. I told him of my fears for the business, for myself, my nice home and the niche I had made for myself among these people. I told him of my fear of growing old, of how the young today seemed so much stranger and harder than we had ever been, even with what we had seen during the war. I told him of my dreams, of Old Mother with a mouthful of orange and of Jeannette Gaudin and the snakes, and little by little I began to feel the poison inside me drain away.
When at last I finished, there was silence.
“You can’t stand guard every night,” said Paul at last. “You’ll kill yourself.”
“I have no choice,” I told him. “Those people, they could come back any time.”
“We’ll share watches,” said Paul simply, and that was that.
I let him have the guest room now that Pistache and the children were gone. He was no trouble, keeping to himself, making his own bed and keeping things tidy. A lot of the time you’d hardly have noticed him, and yet he was there, calm and unobtrusive. I felt guilty that I had ever thought him slow. In fact he was quicker than I was in some ways; certainly it was he who finally made the connection between the Snack-Wagon and Cassis’s son.
We spent two nights watching for trespassers — aul from ten till two, and I from two till six — and already I was beginning to feel more rested and more able to cope. Just sharing the problem was enough for me just then; just knowing there was someone else… Of course, the neighbors began to talk almost at once. You can’t really keep a secret in a place like Les Laveuses, and too many people knew that old Paul Hourias had left his shack by the river to move in with the widow. People fell silent as I came into shops. The postman winked at me as he delivered letters. Some disapproving glances came my way, mostly from the curé and his Sunday-school cronies, but for the most part there was little but quiet, indulgent laughter. Louis Ramondin was heard to say that the widow had been behaving strangely in recent weeks, and now he knew why. Ironically, many of my customers came back for a while, if only to see for themselves whether the rumors were true.
I ignored them.
Of course, the Snack-Wagon hadn’t moved, and the noise and nuisance from the daily crowds did not abate. I’d given up trying to reason with the man, the authorities, such as they were, seemed uninterested, which left us — Paul and I — with only one remaining alternative. We investigated.
Every day Paul took to drinking his lunchtime demi at La Mauvaise Réputation, where the motorcyclists and the town girls came. He questioned the postman. Lise, also helped us, even though I’d had to lay her off for the winter, and she set her little brother, Viannet, onto the case too, which must have made Luc the most watched man in Les Laveuses. We found out a few things.
He was from Paris. He’d moved to Angers six months ago. He had money and plenty of it, spending freely. No one seemed to know his last name, though he wore a signet ring with the initials L. D. He had an eye or two for the girls. He drove a white Porsche, which he kept at the back of La Mauvaise Réputation. He was generally reckoned to be all right, which probably meant he bought a lot of rounds.
Not a great deal for our trouble.
Then Paul thought of inspecting the Snack-Wagon. Of course I’d done that before, but Paul waited until it was closed and its owner was safely in the bar of La Mauvaise Réputation. It was sealed, locked, padlocked, but at the back of the trailer he found a small metal plate with a registration and a contact telephone number inscribed on it. We checked the telephone number and traced it… To the restaurant Aux Délices Dessanges, Rue des Romarins, Angers.
I should have known from the start.
Yannick and Laure would never have given up so easily on a potential source of income. And knowing what I did now, it was easy to see where I’d recognized his features. That same slightly aquiline nose, the clever, bright eyes, the sharp cheekbones… Luc Dessanges. Laure’s brother.
My first reaction was to go straight to the police. Not to our Louis but to the Angers police, to say I was being harassed. Paul talked me out of it.
There was no proof, he told me gently. Without proof there was nothing anyone could do. Luc hadn’t done anything openly illegal. If we could have caught him, well, that would have been something else, but he was too careful, too clever for that. They were waiting for me to cave in, waiting for just the right moment to step in and make their demands. — If only we could help you, Mamie. Just let us try. No hard feelings.
I was all for taking the bus to Angers there and then. Find them in their lair. Embarrass them in front of their friends and customers. Screech to all and sundry that I was being hounded, blackmailed-but Paul said we should wait. Impatience and aggression had already lost me more than half my customers. For the first time in my life, I waited.
They came calling a week later.
It was Sunday afternoon, and for the past three weeks I had closed the crêperie on Sundays. The Snack-Wagon too was closed — he followed my own opening hours almost to the minute — and Paul and I were sitting in the yard with the last of the autumn sun warming our faces. I was reading, but Paul — never a reader in the old days — seemed content to sit doing nothing, occasionally looking at me in that mild undemanding way of his or maybe whittling at a piece of wood.
I heard the knock, and went to answer the door. It was Laure, businesslike in a dark-blue dress, with Yannick in his charcoal suit behind her. Their smiles were like piano keyboards. Laure was carrying a large plant with red and green leaves. I kept them on the doorstep.
“Who’s died?” I asked coolly. “Not me, not yet, though it isn’t for want of both of you bastards trying.”
Laure put on her pained look.
“Now, Mamie,” she began.
“Don’t you ”Now Mamie‘ me,“ I snapped. ”I know all about your dirty little intimidation games. It isn’t going to work. I’d die rather than let you make a penny out of me, so you can tell your brother to pack up his grease cart and clear off, because I know what he’s up to, and if it doesn’t stop right now, then I swear I’ll go to the police and tell them exactly what you’ve been doing.“
Yannick looked alarmed and began to make placating noises, but Laure was made of tougher stuff. The surprise in her face lasted for maybe ten seconds, then hardened into a tight, dry smile.
“I knew from the start that we’d be better off telling you everything,” she said, with a flick of a contemptuous glance at her husband. “None of this is helping either of us, and I’m sure that once I explain everything you’ll understand the value of a little cooperation.”
I folded my arms. “You can explain what you like,” I said. “But my mother’s legacy belongs to me and Reine-Claude, whatever my brother told you, and there’s nothing more to be said about it.”
Laure gave me a broad, hateful smile of dislike.
“Is that what you thought we wanted, Mamie? Your bit of money? Oh really! What a dreadful pair you must think us.”
Suddenly I saw myself through their eyes, an old woman in a stained apron, sloe eyes and hair dragged back so tightly it stretched the skin. I growled at them then, like a bewildered dog, and grabbed hold of the doorpost to steady myself. My breath came in gasps, each one a journey through thorns.
“It isn’t that we couldn’t do with the money,” said Yannick earnestly. “The restaurant business isn’t doing well right now. That last review in Hôte amp; Cuisine didn’t help. And we’ve been having trouble-”
Laure quelled him with a glance.
“I don’t want the money at all,” she repeated.
“I know what you want,” I said again, harshly, trying not to let my confusion show. “My mother’s recipes. But I won’t give them to you.”
Laure looked at me, still smiling. I realized that it wasn’t just recipes she wanted, and a cold fist tightened around my heart.
“No,” I whispered.
“Mirabelle Dartigen’s album,” said Laure gently. “Her very own album. Her thoughts, her recipes, her secrets. Our grandmother’s legacy to all of us. It’s a crime to keep something like that hidden away forever.”
The word wrenched from me, and I felt as if it were taking half of my heart with it. Laure started and Yannick took a step back. My breath was a throatful of fishhooks.
“You can’t keep it secret forever, Framboise,” said Laure reasonably. “It’s incredible no one found out before this. Mirabelle Dartigen”-she was flushed, almost pretty in her excitement-“one of the most elusive and enigmatic criminals of the twentieth century. Out of the blue she murders a young soldier and stands by coolly while half her village is shot in retribution, then she just walks off without a word of explanation-”
“It wasn’t like that,” I said in spite of myself.
“Then tell me what it was like,” said Laure, taking a step forward. “I’d consult you on everything. We’ve got the chance of a wonderful, exclusive insight here, and I know it will make a fabulous book…”
“What book?” I said stupidly.
Laure looked impatient.
“What do you mean, what book? I thought you’d guessed. You said…”
I felt my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth. With difficulty I said,
“I thought you were after the recipe book. After what you told me-”
She shook her head impatiently.
“No, I need it to research my book. You read my pamphlet, didn’t you? You must have known I was interested in the case. And when Cassis told us she was actually related to us. Yannick’s grandmother-” She broke off again to grasp at my hand. Her fingers were long and cool, her nails painted shell-pink like her lips. “Mamie, you’re the last of her children. Cassis dead, Reine-Claude useless…”
“You went to see her?” I said blankly.
“She doesn’t remember anything. A complete vegetable.” Her mouth was wry. “Plus no one in Les Laveuses remembers anything worth mentioning-or if they do, they won’t talk-”
“How do you know?”
Rage had given way to a cold feeling, a realization that this was much worse than anything I had previously suspected.
She shrugged. “Luc, of course. I asked him to come over here, ask a few questions, buy some rounds at the old anglers’ club, you know what I mean.” She gave me that impatient, quizzical look. “You told me you knew all that.”
I nodded in silence, too benumbed to speak.
“I have to say you’ve managed to keep it quiet for longer than I would have thought possible,” continued Laure admiringly. “No one imagines that you’re anything but a nice Breton lady, la veuve Simon. You’re very much respected. You’ve done well for yourself here. No one suspects a thing. You never even told your daughter.”
“Pistache?” I sounded stupid to myself, my mouth yawning like my mind. “You’ve not been talking to her?”
“I wrote her a few letters. I thought she might know something about Mirabelle. But you never told her, did you?”
Oh, God. Oh, Pistache. I was in a landslide where every movement starts a new rockfall, bringing a new collapse of the world I thought steady.
“But what about your other daughter? When did you last hear from her? And what does she know?”
“You have no right, no right-” The words were harsh as salt in my mouth. “You don’t understand what it means to me-this place-if people get to know-”
“Now, now, Mamie.” I was too weak to push her away, and she put her arms around me. “Obviously, we’d keep your name out of it. And even if it got out-you have to face it, it might one day-then we’d find you another place. A better place. At your age you shouldn’t be living in a dilapidated old farm like this anyway-it doesn’t even have proper plumbing, for Christ’s sake-we could settle you in a nice flat in Angers, we’d keep the press away from you. We care about you, Mamie, whatever you may think. We’re not monsters. We want what’s best for you-”
I pushed her away with more strength than I knew I had.
Gradually I became aware of Paul standing silently behind me, and my fear blossomed into a great flower of rage and elation. I was not alone. Paul, my loyal old friend, was with me now.
“Think what it might mean to the family, Mamie.”
I began to push the door closed, but Laure put her high heel into the crack.
“You can’t hide away forever-”
Then Paul stepped forward into the doorway. He spoke in a calm and slightly drawling voice, the voice of a man who is either deeply at peace or a little slow in the head.
“Maybe you didn’t hear Framboise.” His smile was almost sleepy but for the wink he gave me, and in that moment I loved him completely and with a suddenness which startled away my rage. “If I’ve understood this right, then she doesn’t want to do business. Isn’t that so?”
“Who’s this?” said Laure. “What’s he doing here?”
Paul gave her his sweet and sleepy smile.
“A friend,” he told her simply. “From way back.”
“Framboise,” called Laure from behind Paul’s shoulder. “Think about what we said. Think about what it means. We wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t important. Think about it-”
“I’m sure she will,”
said Paul kindly, and closed the door. Laure began to knock persistently upon it, and Paul drew the latch and put on the safety chain. I could hear her voice, muffled by the thickness of the wood, now with a high buzzing note in it.
“Framboise! Be reasonable! I’ll tell Luc to go away! Things can go back to the way they were! FRAMBOISE!”
“Coffee?” suggested Paul, going into the kitchen. “Make you feel… you know… better.”
I glanced at the door. “That woman,” I said in a shaking voice.
“That hateful woman.”
“Take it outside,” he suggested simply. “Won’t hear her from there.”
It was as easy as that to him, and I followed, exhausted, as he brought me hot black coffee with cinnamon cream and sugar, and a slice of blueberry far from the kitchen cupboard. I ate and drank in silence for a while until I felt my courage return.
“She won’t give up,” I told him at last. “Either way she’ll keep at me until she forces me out. Then, she knows there won’t be any point in me keeping the secret any longer.” I put my hand to my aching head. “She knows I can’t hang on forever. All she has to do is wait. I won’t last long anyhow.”
“Are you going to give in to her?” Paul’s voice was calm and curious.
“No,” I said harshly.
“Then you shouldn’t talk as if you are. You’re smarter than she is.” For some reason he was blushing. “And you know you can win if you try-”
“How?” I knew I sounded like my mother, but I couldn’t help it. “Against Luc Dessanges and his friends? Against Laure and Yannick? It hasn’t been two months yet and already they’ve half-ruined my business. All they need to do is go on the way they began, and by spring…” I made a furious gesture of frustration. “And what about when they start talking? All they have to say-” I choked on the words. “All they have to do is mention my mother’s name…”
Paul shook his head.
“I don’t think they’ll do that,” he said calmly. “Not at once, anyway. They want something to bargain with. They know you’re afraid of that.”
“Cassis told them,” I said dully.
He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “They’ll leave you alone for a while. Hope to make you come around. Try to make you see sense. They’ll want you to do it of your own accord.”
“So?” I could feel my anger reaching toward him now. “How long does that leave me? A month? Two? What can I do with two months? I could rack my brains for a year and it still wouldn’t do any-”
“That’s not true.” He spoke flatly, without resentment, pulling a single crumpled Gauloise from his top pocket and popping a match against his thumb to light it. “Do anything you’ve a mind to do. Always could.” He looked at me then over the red eye of the cigarette and gave his small, sad smile. “Remember from the old days. You caught Old Mother, didn’t you?”
I shook my head. “That isn’t the same thing,” I told him.
“It is, though, just about,” replied Paul, dragging acrid smoke. “You must know that. You can learn a lot about life from fishing.”
I looked at him, puzzled. He went on:
“Take Old Mother, now. How d’you catch her, when all those others didn’t?”
I considered that for a moment, thinking back to my nine-year-old self.
“I studied the river,” I said at last. “I learned about the old pike’s habits, where it fed, what it fed on. And I waited. I was lucky, that’s all.”
“Hm.” The cigarette flared again, and he breathed smoke through his nostrils. “And if this Dessanges was a fish. What then?” He grinned suddenly. “Find where he feeds. Find the right bait, and he’s yours. Isn’t that right?”
I looked at him.
“Isn’t that right?”
Maybe. Hope scratched a thin silver trail across my heart. Maybe.
“I’m too old to fight them,” I said. “Too old and too tired.”
Paul put his rough brown hand over mine and smiled.
“Not to me,” he said.
He’s right, of course. You can learn a lot about life from fishing. Tomas had taught me that, among other things. We’d talked a lot, the year we were friends. Sometimes Cassis and Reine were there and we’d talk and exchange news for small items of contraband: a stick of chewing gum or a bar of chocolate or a jar of face cream for Reine or an orange… Tomas seemed to have an unlimited supply of these items, which he distributed with casual indifference. He almost always came alone now.
Since my conversation with Cassis in the tree house I felt that things were settled between us, Tomas and me. We followed the rules; not the mad rules of our mother’s devising but simple rules that even a child of nine could understand: Keep your eyes open. Look after number one. Share and share alike. We three children had been self-sufficient for so long that it was a blissful, if unspoken relief to have someone in charge again — an adult, someone to keep order.
I remember one day. We were together, the three of us, and Tomas was late. Cassis still called him Leibniz, though Reine and I had long since progressed to first-name terms, and today Cassis was jumpy and sullen, sitting apart from the rest of us on the riverbank, pinging stones into the water. He’d had a shouting match with Mother that morning over some matter of no importance.
If our father was alive you wouldn’t dare talk to me like that!
If your father was alive he’d do as he was told, just as you do!
Beneath the lash of her tongue Cassis fled, as always. He kept Father’s old hunting jacket on a straw mattress in the tree house, and he was wearing it now, hunched in it like an old Indian in a rug. It was always a bad sign when he wore Father’s jacket, and Reine and I left him alone.
He was still sitting there when Tomas came.
Tomas noticed that at once, and sat a little farther down the bank without saying anything.
“I’ve had enough,” said Cassis at last, without looking at Tomas. “Kid’s stuff. I’m fourteen. I’ve had enough of all that.”
Tomas took off his army greatcoat and tossed it aside for Reinette to go through the pockets. I lay on my stomach on the bank and watched.
Cassis spoke up again.
“Comics. Chocolate. It’s all rubbish. That’s not war. It’s nothing.” He stood up, looking agitated. “None of it’s serious. It’s just a game. My father got his head blown off and it’s all a stinking game to you, isn’t it?”
“Is that what you think?” said Tomas.
“I think you’re a Boche,” spat Cassis.
“Come with me,” said Tomas, standing up. “Girls, you stay here. Okay?”
Reine was happy to do that, to flick through the magazines and treasures in the greatcoat’s many pockets. I left her to it, and slunk after them through the undergrowth, keeping low to the mossy ground. Their voices filtered toward me distantly, like motes from the tree canopy. I didn’t hear all of it. I was crouching low behind a fallen stump, almost afraid to breathe. Tomas unholstered his gun and held it out to Cassis.
“Hold it if you like. Feel how it feels.”
It must have felt very heavy in his hand. Cassis leveled it and looked over the sights at the German. Tomas seemed not to notice.
“My brother was shot as a deserter,” said Tomas. “He’d only just finished his training. He was nineteen, and scared. He was a machine gunner, and the noise must have sent him a little crazy. He died in a Polish village, right at the beginning of the war. I thought that if he’d been with me I could have helped him, kept him cool somehow, kept him out of trouble. I wasn’t even there.”
Cassis looked at him with hostility.
Tomas ignored the question.
“He was my parents’s favorite. It was always Ernst who got to lick the pots when my mother was cooking. Ernst who got the least chores to do. Ernst who made them proud. Me? I was a plodder, just about good enough to take out the rubbish or feed the pigs. Not much else.”
Cassis was listening now. I could feel the tension between them like something burning.
“When we got the news I was home on leave. A letter came. It was supposed to be a secret, but within half an hour everyone in the village knew the Leibniz boy had deserted. My parents couldn’t understand what was going on. They behaved like people who had been struck by lightning.”
I began to crawl closer, using the fallen tree as cover. Tomas went on.
“The funny thing was that I’d always thought I was the coward in the family. I kept my head down. I didn’t take risks. But from then on, to my parents I was a hero. Suddenly I’d taken Ernst’s place. It was as if he’d never existed. I was their only son. I was everything.”
“Wasn’t that… scary?” Cassis’s voice was almost inaudible.
I heard Cassis sigh then, a sound like a heavy door closing.
“He wasn’t supposed to die,” said my brother. I guessed it was Father to whom he referred. Tomas waited patiently, seemingly impassive. “He was always supposed to be so clever. He had everything under control. He wasn’t a coward-”
Cassis broke off and glared at Tomas, as if his silence implied something. His voice and his hands were shaking. Then he began to scream in a high, tortured voice, words I could hardly make out spilling over themselves in furious eagerness to be free.
“He wasn’t supposed to die! He was supposed to sort everything out and make everything better and instead he went and got his stupid self blown up and now it’s me in charge and I… don’t… know… what to do anymore and I’m‘s-s-sc-”
Tomas waited until it was over. It took some time. Then he put out his hand and casually retrieved the gun.
“That’s the trouble with heroes,” he remarked. “They never quite live up to expectations, do they?”
“I could have shot you,” said Cassis sullenly.
“There’s more than one way of fighting back,” said Tomas.
I sensed they were reaching a close, and began to retreat back through the bushes, not wanting to be there when they turned around. Reinette was still there, absorbed in a copy of Ciné-Mag. Five minutes later Cassis and Tomas were back, arm in arm like brothers, and Cassis was wearing the German’s cap at a rakish angle on his own head.
“Keep it,” advised Tomas. “I know where I can get another one.”
The bait was taken. Cassis was his slave from that moment.
After that our enthusiasm for Tomas’s cause redoubled. Any piece of information, however trivial, was grist to his mill. Madame Henriot at the post office was opening mail in secret, Gilles Petit at the butcher was selling cat meat and calling it rabbit, Martin Dupré had been heard speaking against the Germans in La Mauvaise Réputation with Henri Drouot, everyone knew the Truriands had a radio hidden under a trap in their back garden and that Martin Francin was a Communist, and day by day he would visit these people with the excuse of collecting supplies for the barracks and would leave with a little more than he came for, a pocketful of notes or some black market cloth or a bottle of wine… Sometimes his victimspaid with more information; a cousin from Paris hiding in a cellar in downtown Angers, or a stabbing behind Le Chat Rouget. By the end of summer Tomas Leibniz knew half the secrets in Angers and two thirds of those in Les Laveuses, and he already had a small fortune tucked away in his mattress in the barracks. “Fighting back,” he called it. Against what, he never needed to say.
He was sending money home to Germany, though I never knew how. There were ways, of course. Diplomatic bags and couriers’ cases. Food trains and hospital trucks. Plenty of ways for an enterprising young man to exploit, given the right contacts. He exchanged duties with friends in order to visit local farms. He listened at the door of the officers’ mess. People liked Tomas, trusted him, talked to him. And he never forgot anything.
It was risky. He told me as much, meeting me one day down by the river. If he made a mistake he might be shot. But his eyes were bright with laughter as he told me. Only a fool gets caught, he said, grinning. A fool gets slack and careless, greedy too, perhaps. Heinemann and the others were fools. He’d needed them once, but now it was safer to play alone. Liabilities, all of them. Too many weaknesses-fat Schwartz had an eye for the girls, Hauer drank to excess and Heinemann, with his constant scratching and nervous tics, seemed a prime candidate for the sanatorium. No, he said lazily, lying on his back with a clover stem between his teeth, it was better to work alone, to watch and wait and let others take the big risks.
“Take your pike,” he said reflectively. “It hasn’t lived so long in the river by taking risks all the time. It’s a bottom feeder most of the time, even though its teeth allow it to tackle just about any fish on the river.” He paused to discard the clover stem and to pull himself into a seated position overlooking the water. “It knows it’s being hunted, Backfisch, so it waits on the bottom, eating bits of rotted stuff and sewage and mud. From the bottom, it’s safe. It watches the other fish, the smaller ones, closer to the surface, sees their bellies reflecting the sun, and when it sees one a little farther from the rest, maybe one in trouble-whap!”
He demonstrated with a rapid movement of the hands, closing imaginary jaws on the invisible victim.
I watched him with wide eyes.
“It keeps away from traps and nets. It knows them by sight. Other fish get greedy, but the old pike just bides its time. It knows to wait. And the bait… it knows that too. Lures don’t work for the old pike. Live bait’s all it will take, and even then only sometimes. Takes a clever man to catch a pike.” He smiled. “You and I could both learn a few lessons from an old pike like that, Backfisch.”
Well, I took him at his word. I met him once a fortnight or even once a week, once or twice alone, more often the three of us. It was usually a Thursday, and we met by the Lookout Post and went into the woods or downriver away from the village, where no one would see us. Often Tomas wore civilian clothing, leaving his uniform hidden so that no one would ask questions. On Mother’s bad days I used the orange bag to keep her to her room while we met Tomas. On all other days I rose at four thirty every morning and fished before the morning’s chores began, taking care to choose the darkest and quietest parts of the Loire. I caught live bait in my cray pots, keeping them alive and trapped until I could use them to bait my new rod. Then I skimmed them across the water, just lightly enough for their pale bellies to touch the surface, raking the current with the living lure. I caught several pike that way, but they were all youngsters, none of them much longer than a hand or a foot. I pinned them to the Standing Stones all the same, with the stinking strips of water snake that had hung there all that summer.
Like the pike, I waited.
It was early September now, and summer was drawing to an end. Still hot, there was a new ripeness in the air, something rich and swollen, a sweet scent of honey decay. The bad August rains had spoiled much of the fruit harvest, and what remained was black with wasps, but we picked it anyway-we could not afford waste, and what could not be sold as fresh fruit might still make jam or liqueur for the winter. My mother supervised the operation, giving us all thick gloves to wear and wooden tongs (once used for picking washing out of the boiling vats at the laundry) to pick up the fallen fruit. I remember the wasps were especially mean that year, perhaps scenting the approach of autumn and their coming deaths, for they stung us repeatedly in spite of our gloves as we flung the half-rotten fruit into the big boiling pans for jam. The jam itself was half wasps at first, and Reine-who loathed insects-was almost hysterical at having to scoop their half-dead bodies from the scummy surface of the red liquid with a slotted spoon, flinging them far onto the path in a spray of plum juice where soon enough their living companions were crawling stickily. Mother had no patience with such behavior. We were not expected to be afraid of such things as wasps, and when Reine screamed and cried at having to pick up the swarming masses of windfall plums, she spoke to her more sharply than usual.
“Don’t be more of a fool than God made you, girl,” she snapped. “Do you think the plums will pick themselves? Or do you expect the rest of us to do it for you?”
Reine whimpered, hands held out stiffly in front of her, her face twisted with loathing and fear.
My mother’s tone grew dangerous. For a moment her voice sounded waspy, buzzing with menace.
“Go to it,” she said, “or I’ll give you something to whine about,”
and she pushed Reinette hard toward the pile of plums we had collected, a pile of spongy half-fermented fruit volatile with wasps. Reinette found herself in a swarm of insects and screamed, recoiling toward my mother, eyes closed so that she did not see the sudden spasm of rage which crossed Mother’s face. For a moment Mother looked almost blank, then she grabbed Reinette, who was still screaming hysterically, by the arm and marched her quickly, wordlessly toward the house. Cassis and I looked at each other but made no move to follow. We knew better than that. When Reinette began to scream more loudly, each scream punctuated by a sound like the crack of a small air rifle, we simply shrugged and went back to work among the wasps, using the wooden tongs to scoop drifts of spoiled plums into the bins that lined the path.
After what seemed like a long while, the sounds of Reinette being whipped ceased, and she and my mother came out of the house-Mother still holding the piece of washing line she had used-and set to work again in silence, Reinette sniffing occasionally and wiping at her reddened eyes. After a while Mother’s tic began again, and she went to her room, leaving us with terse instructions to finish picking up the windfalls and to put the jam on to boil. She never mentioned the incident later, or seemed even to recall its having happened, though I heard Reinette tossing and whimpering in the night and saw the red weals on her legs as she put on her nightdress.
Unusual though it was, it was far from the last unusual thing Mother was to do that summer, and it was very soon forgotten-except by Reinette, of course. We had other things to think about.
I had seen little of Paul that summer; with Cassis and Reinette out of school he had kept his distance. But by September the new term was close to starting, and Paul began to come round more often. Though I liked Paul well enough, I felt uneasy about him meeting Tomas, so I often avoided him, hiding in the bushes at the side of the river until he’d gone, ignoring his calls or pretending not to notice when he waved at me. After a while he seemed to get the message, because he stopped coming altogether.
It was at this point that Mother began to grow really strange. Since the incident with Reinette we had watched her with the wary caution of primitives at the feet of their god-and indeed, she was a kind of idol to us, a thing of arbitrary favors and punishments, and her smiles and frowns were the vane upon which our emotional weather turned. Now with September on the turn and school starting for the two eldest in a week’s time, she became almost a parody of her former self, enraged at the slightest tiny thing-a dishcloth left beside the sink, a plate on the draining board, a speck of dust on the glass of a framed photograph. Her headaches plagued her almost daily. I almost envied Cassis and Reinette, spending long days in school, but our own primary school had closed since the teacher had moved to Paris, and I would not be old enough to join them in Angers until the following year.
I used the orange bag often. Although terrified that my mother might discover the trick, I still couldn’t stop myself. Only when she took her pills was she quiet, and she only took them when she smelled oranges. I hid my supply of orange peel deep in the anchovy barrel and brought it out when necessary. It was risky, but it often brought me five or six hours of much needed peace.
Between these brief moments of amnesty the campaign between us continued. I was growing fast; already I was as tall as Cassis, taller than Reinette. I had my mother’s sharp face, her dark, suspicious eyes, her straight black hair. I resented this similarity more than her strangeness, and as summer festered into autumn I felt my resentment grow until I felt almost stifled with it. There was a piece of mirror in our bedroom, and I found myself looking into it in secret. I’d never taken a great deal of interest in my appearance before, but now I became curious, then critical. I counted my shortcomings and was dismayed to find so many. I would have liked to have curly hair, like Reinette, and full, red lips. I sneaked the film postcards from beneath my sister’s mattress and learned each one by heart. Not with sighs and ecstasies, but with gritted-teeth desperation. I twisted my hair with rags to make it curl. Fiercely I pinched the pale brown buds of my breasts to make them grow. Nothing worked. I remained the image of my mother, sullen, inarticulate and clumsy. There were other strangenesses. I had vivid dreams from which I awoke gasping and sweating, though the nights were turning cold. My sense of smell was enhanced, so that on some days I could smell a burning hayrick right across Hourias’s fields with the wind in the opposite direction, or I knew when Paul had been eating smoked ham or what my mother was making in the kitchen before I even got into the orchard. For the first time I was aware of my own smell, my own salty, fishy, warm smell (which persisted even when I rubbed my skin with lemon balm and peppermint), the sharp oily scent of my hair. I had stomach cramps-I who was never sick-and headaches. I began to wonder if my mother’s strangeness was not something I had inherited, a terrible mad secret into which I was being drawn.
Then I awoke one morning to find blood on the bedsheet. Cassis and Reinette were getting ready to cycle to school and paid little attention to me. Instinctively I dragged the cover over the stained sheet and pulled on an old skirt and sweater before running down to the Loire to investigate my affliction. There was blood on my legs, and I washed it in the river. I tried to make a bandage for myself out of old handkerchiefs, but the injury was too deep, too complex for that. I felt as if I were being torn apart nerve by nerve.
It never occurred to me to tell my mother. I had never heard of menstruation-Mother was obsessively prim regarding bodily functions-and I assumed that I was badly hurt, maybe even dying. A careless fall somewhere in the woods, a poison mushroom, bleeding me from the inside out, perhaps even a poisonous thought. We did not go to church-my mother disliked what she called la curaille and sneered at the crowds on their way to Mass-and yet she had given us a strong awareness of sin. Badness will get out somehow, she would say; and we were full of badness to her, like wineskins bloated with a bitter vintage, always to be watched, tapped, every look and mutter indicative of the deeper, the instinctive badness that we hid.
I was the worst. I understood this. I saw it in my own eyes in the mirror, so like hers with their flat, animal insolence. You can call Death with a single bad thought, she used to say, and that summer all my thoughts had been bad. I believed her. Like a poisoned animal I hid, climbing up to the top of the Lookout Post and lying curled on the wooden floor of the tree house, waiting for death. My belly ached like a rotten tooth. When Death didn’t come I read one of Cassis’s comics for a while, then lay looking up at the bright canopy of leaves until I fell asleep.
She explained it to me later as she handed me the clean sheet. Expressionless but for that look of appraisal which she always wore in my presence, mouth thinned almost to invisibility and eyes barbed-wire jags in her pallor.
“It’s the curse come early,” she said. “You’d better have these.”
And she gave me a wad of muslin squares, almost like a child’s diapers. She didn’t tell me how to use them.
“Curse?” I’d stayed away all day in the tree house, expecting to die. Her lack of expression infuriated and confused me. I’d always loved drama. I’d imagined myself dead at her feet, flowers at my head. A marble gravestone-Beloved Daughter. I’d told myself that I must have seen Old Mother without knowing it. I was cursed.
Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.
Приведённый ознакомительный фрагмент книги Five Quarters of the Orange / Пять четвертинок апельсина предоставлен нашим книжным партнёром — компанией ЛитРес.
ЕГЭ по английскому языку 2022 (задние 40.2). Полный курс по подготовке к письменному заданию нового формата
Легкое чтение на английском языке. Дж. Свифт. Путешествия Гулливера / Jonathan Swift. Gulliver’s Travels