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 coll`ege 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. “Wh-what’s wrong?”
I shrugged. “Nothing. I’m just fishing, that’s all.”
Another silence. “For’s-snakes.” His voice was carefully uninflected.
I nodded, rather defiantly. “So?”
“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. “Dunno.”
“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.