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 coll`ege 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 cendr'es. 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.
I considered. “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.”
He laughed. “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.