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 sch"one 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-sch"on 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 Courl'e, 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.