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.