So that was how I met Tomas Leibniz. For some reason Reinette was furious with me for talking to him, and sulked all the way through the rest of the film. Hauer had slipped Cassis a packet of Gauloises, and we both crept back to our seats, Cassis smoking one of his cigarettes and myself lost in speculation. Only when the film was finished was I ready to ask questions.
“Those cigarettes,” I said. “Is that what you meant when you said you could get things?”
“Of course.” Cassis was looking pleased with himself, but I still sensed anxiety beneath the surface. He held his cigarette in the palm of his hand, as if in imitation of the Germans, but on him the gesture looked awkward and self-conscious.
“Do you tell them things? Do you?”
“We sometimes…tell them things,” admitted Cassis, smirking.
“What kind of things?”
Cassis shrugged. “It started with that old idiot and his radio,” he said in a low voice. “That was only fair. He shouldn’t have had it anyway, and he shouldn’t have pretended to be so shocked when all we were doing was watching the Germans. Sometimes we leave notes with a delivery man, or at the caf'e. Sometimes the newspaper man gives us stuff they’ve left. Sometimes they bring it.” He tried for nonchalance but I could sense that he was anxious, edgy.
“It’s nothing important,” he continued. “Most of the Boches use the black market themselves anyway, and send stuff home to Germany. You know, stuff they’ve requisitioned. So it doesn’t really matter.”
I considered this. “But the Gestapo-”
“Oh, grow up, Boise!” Suddenly he was angry, as he always was when I put him under pressure. “What do you know about the Gestapo?” He looked around nervously, then lowered his voice again. “Of course we don’t deal with them. This is different. I told you, it’s just business. And anyway, it’s nothing to do with you.”
I faced him, feeling resentful. “Why not? I know things too.” I wished now that I had made more of Madame Petit with the German, that I had told him she was a Jew.
Cassis shook his head scornfully. “You wouldn’t understand.”
We rode home in slightly apprehensive silence, perhaps expecting Mother to have guessed about our unsanctioned trip, but when we got home we found her in unusual spirits. She did not mention the smell of oranges, her sleepless night or the changes I had made in her room, and the meal she prepared was almost a celebration dinner, with carrot and chicory soup, boudin noir with apple and potatoes, black buckwheat pancakes and clafoutis for dessert, heavy and moist with last year’s apples and crusted with brown sugar and cinnamon. We ate in silence as always, but Mother seemed abstracted, quite forgetting to tell me to take my elbows off the table and failing to see my tangled hair and smudged face.
Perhaps the orange had tamed her, I thought.
She made up for it the next day, however, reverting to her usual self again with a vengeance. We avoided her as best we could, doing our chores in haste then retreating to the Lookout Post and the river, where we played halfheartedly.
During these summer days at the river Paul came with us, but he sensed that he was no longer a part of us, that he was excluded from the circle we made. I felt sorry for him, even a little guilty, knowing what it was like to be excluded, but could do nothing to prevent it. Paul would have to fight his own battles, as I had fought mine.
Besides, Mother disliked Paul as she disliked the entire Hourias family. In her eyes Paul was an idler, too lazy to go to school, too stupid even to learn to read in the village with the other children. His parents were just as bad-a man who sold bloodworms by the side of the road and a woman who mended other people’s clothes. But my mother was especially vicious about Paul’s uncle. At first I thought this was simply village rivalry. Philippe Hourias owned the biggest farm in Les Laveuses, acres of sunflower fields and potatoes and cabbages and beets, twenty cows, pigs, goats, a tractor at a time when most local people still used hand plows and horses, a proper milking machine… It was jealousy, I told myself, the resentment of the struggling widow against the wealthy widower. Still, it was odd, given that Philippe Hourias had been my father’s oldest friend. They had been boys together, fishing, swimming, sharing secrets. Philippe had carved my father’s name on the war memorial himself, and always laid flowers at its base on Sundays. But Mother never acknowledged him with more than a nod. Never a gregarious soul, after the orange incident she seemed more hostile than ever toward him.
In fact it was only much later that I began to guess at the truth. When I read the album, in fact, more than forty years afterward. That tiny, migraine-inducing script staggering across the bound pages. She wrote:
Hourias knows already. I see him looking at me sometimes. Pity and curiosity, like I was something he ran over in the road. Last night he saw me coming out of La R'ep with the things I need to buy there. He didn’t say anything, but I knew he’d guessed. He thinks we should marry, of course. It makes sense to him, widow and widower, marrying their land together. Yannick had no brother to take over when he died. And a woman isn’t expected to run a farm alone.
If she had been a naturally sweet woman, perhaps I might have suspected something sooner. But Mirabelle Dartigen was not a sweet woman. She was rock salt and river mud, her rages as quick and furious and inevitable as summer lightning. I never sought the cause, merely avoiding the effect as best I could.