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.