home   |   -   |   A-Z   |  


16.

I said nothing to Cassis or Reinette about what had occurred between Leibniz and myself. To have spoken of it to them would have robbed it of its potency. Instead I hugged my secret close, turning it over in my mind like a stolen treasure. It gave me a peculiarly adult feeling of power.

I now thought of Cassiss film magazines and Reinettes lipstick with a certain contempt. They thought theyd been so clever. But what had they really done? Theyd behaved like children telling tales in school. The Germans treated them like children, bribing them with trinkets. Leibniz had not tried to bribe me. He had spoken to me as an equal, with respect.

The Hourias farm had been badly hit. A weeks supply of eggs requisitioned, half the milk, two whole sides of salted pork, seven pounds of butter, a barrel of oil, twenty-four bottles of wine (ill concealed behind a partition in the cellar), plus any number of terrines and preserves. Paul told me about it. I felt a small pang for him-his uncle provided most of the familys supplies-but promised myself I would share my own food with him whenever I could. Besides, the season was just beginning. Philippe Hourias would make up his losses soon enough. And I had other things on my mind.

The orange bag was still hidden where I had left it. Not under my mattress-though Reinette still insisted upon keeping her original cache for the beauty aids she imagined to be secret. No, my secret place was a great deal more imaginative. I placed the bag in a small screw-top glass jar and sunk it elbow deep in a barrel of salted anchovies that my mother kept in the cellar. A piece of string tied around the lip of the jar would enable me to locate it when needed. Discovery was unlikely, as Mother disliked the pungent scent of the anchovies and usually sent me to fetch any that might be required.

I knew it would work again.

I waited until Wednesday evening. This time I hid the bag in the spill tray under the stove, where the heat would release the vapor the quickest. Sure enough, Mother was soon rubbing her temple as she worked at the stove, snapping sharply at me if I was late in bringing her flour or wood, scolding-mind you dont chip my good plates, girl!-and sniffing the air with that animal look of confusion and distress. I closed the kitchen door for maximum effect, and the scent of orange invaded the room once again. I hid the bag in her pillow as before-the pieces of orange peel were crisp by then, blackened by the heat of the stove, and I felt sure that this would be the last time I used the orange bag-pushing it into the pillow beneath the striped slip.

Dinner was burnt.

No one dared mention it, though, and my mother fingered the black brittle lace of her charred pancakes and touched her temple over and over until I was sure I would scream. This time she did not ask whether we had brought oranges into the house, though I could tell she wanted to. She just touched and crumbled and fingered and fidgeted, sometimes breaking the silence with a fierce exclamation of rage at some trivial infringement of the house rules.

Reine-Claude! Bread on the breadboard! I dont want you getting crumbs on my clean floor!

Her voice was waspish, exasperated. I cut a slice of bread, deliberately turning the bread over onto the breadboard so that the flat underside was uppermost. For some reason this always enraged Mother, as did my habit of cutting off the crusty piece from either end of the loaf and discarding the middle section.

Framboise! Turn that bread over! She touched her head again, fleetingly, as if checking it was still there. How many times have I told you about-

Then she froze midsentence, head on one side, mouth open.

She stayed that way for thirty seconds or so, staring at nothing with the face of a slow pupil trying to remember Pythagorass theorem or the rule of the ablative absolute. Her eyes were glassy-green and blank as winter ice. We looked at one another in silence, watching her as the seconds passed. Then she moved again, a brusque and typical gesture of irritation, and began to clear the dishes even though we were only halfway through the meal. No one mentioned that, either.

The next day, as I had predicted, she kept to her bed, and we went to Angers as before. Not to the pictures this time; instead we loitered in the streets, Cassis ostentatiously smoking one of his cigarettes, and settled on the terrasse of a town-center caf'e, Le Chat Rouget. Reinette and I ordered diabolo-menthe, and Cassis began to order pastis, changing meekly to panach'e beneath the supercilious gaze of the waiter.

Reine drank carefully, trying not to smear her lipstick. She seemed nervous, head ticking from side to side as if watching out for something.

Who are we waiting for? I inquired. Your Germans?

Cassis glared at me. Tell everyone, wont you, you idiot! he snapped. He lowered his voice. We sometimes meet here, he explained. You can pass messages. No one notices. We trade information.

What kind of information?

Cassis made a sound of derision. Anything, he said impatiently. People with radios. Black market. Traffickers. Resistance. He gave this last word a heavy emphasis, lowering his voice still further.

Resistance, I repeated.

Try to see what that meant to us. We were children. We had our own rules. The adult world was a distant planet inhabited by aliens. We understood so little of it. Least of all the Resistance, that fabulous quasi-organization. Books and the television made it sound so focused in later years; but I remember none of that. Instead I remember a mad scramble in which rumor chased counter-rumor and drunkards in caf'es spoke loudly against the new r'egime, and people fled to relatives in the country, out of the reach of an invading army already stretched beyond tolerance in the towns. The One Resistance-the Secret Army of popular understanding-was a myth. There were many groups, Communists and Humanists and Socialists and people seeking martyrdom and swaggarts and drunkards and opportunists and saints-all sanctified by time, but in those days nothing like an army, and hardly a secret. Mother spoke of them with scorn. According to her, wed all be better off if people just kept their heads down.

Even so, Cassiss whisper awed me. Resistance. It was a word that appealed to my sense of adventure, of drama. It brought images of rival gangs struggling for power, of nighttime escapades, shootings, secret meetings, treasures, dangers braved. In a sense this was still very similar to the games we had played in previous years, Reine, Cassis, Paul and I: the potato guns, passwords, the rituals. The game had broadened a little, that was all. The stakes were higher.

You dont know any Resistance, I said cynically, trying not to sound impressed.

Not yet, maybe, said Cassis. But we could find out. Weve found out all kinds of things already.

Its all right, continued Reinette. We dont talk about anyone in Les Laveuses. We wouldnt tell on our neighbors.

I nodded. That wouldnt be fair.

Anyway, in Angers its different. Everyones doing it here.

I considered this. I could find things out too.

What do you know? said Cassis scornfully.

I almost told him what Id said to Leibniz about Madame Petit and the parachute silk, but decided against it. Instead I asked the question that had been troubling me since Cassis had first mentioned their arrangement with the Germans.

What do they do when you tell them things? Do they shoot people? Do they send them to the front?

Of course not. Dont be silly.

Then what?

But Cassis was no longer listening to me. Instead his eyes were on the newspaper stand by the church opposite, where a black-haired boy of about his own age was watching us insistently. The boy made an impatient gesture in our direction.

Cassis paid for our drinks and stood up. Come on, he said.

Reinette and I followed him. Cassis seemed on friendly terms with the other boy-I supposed he knew him from school. I caught a few words about holiday work, and a snort of low, nervous laughter. Then I saw him slip a folded piece of paper into Cassiss hand.

See you later, said Cassis, moving casually away.

The note was from Hauer.

Meet me at twelve by the school gate. I have something for you.

Only Hauer and Leibniz spoke good French, Cassis explained as we took turns reading the note. The others-Heinemann and Schwartz-knew only basic French, but Leibniz especially might have been a Frenchman himself, someone from Alsace-Lorraine perhaps, with the guttural dialect of the region. For some reason I sensed that this pleased Cassis, as if passing information to an almost-Frenchman were somehow less reprehensible.

Reinette touched the paper with her fingertips. Her face was flushed with excitement. What time is it now? she said. Will we be late?

Cassis shook his head. Not with the bikes, he said, trying for a laconic tone. Lets see what theyve got for us.

As we retrieved the bikes from their usual place in the alley, I noticed that Reinette took a compact from her pocket and quickly checked her reflection. She frowned; snaking the gold lipstick from the pocket of her dress she retouched her lips in scarlet, smiled, retouched, smiled again. The compact closed. I was not entirely surprised. It was clear to me from the first trip that she had something on her mind besides moving-picture shows. The care with which she dressed, the attention she gave to her hair, the lipstick and the perfume All this must be for the benefit of someone. To tell the truth I was not especially interested. I was used to Reine and her ways. At twelve she already looked sixteen. With her hair curled in that sophisticated style and her lips reddened, she might have been older. I had already seen the looks she got from people in the village. Paul Hourias grew tongue-tied and bashful when she was around. Even Jean-Benet Darius, who was an old man of nearly forty, and Guguste Ramondin or Rapha"el at the caf'e Boys looked at her; I knew that. And she noticed them-from her first day at the coll`ege she had been full of tales about the boys she met there. One week it might be Justin, who had such wonderful eyes, or Raymond, who made the whole class laugh, or Pierre-Andr'e, who could play chess, or Guillaume, whose parents moved from Paris last year Thinking back I could even remember when those tales stopped. It must have been about the same time the German garrison moved in.

I gave an inward shrug of indifference. There was certainly a mystery of some kind, I told myself, but Reinettes secrets rarely intrigued me.

Hauer was standing guard at the gate. I could see him better in daylight; a broad-faced German with an almost expressionless face. In a low voice he told us, Upriver-about ten minutes, speaking from the corner of his mouth, then waved at us in mock impatience, as if to send us packing. We got on our bikes again without giving him a second glance, even Reinette, which led me to think that Hauer could not be the object of her infatuation.

Less than ten minutes later we caught sight of Leibniz. At first I thought he was out of uniform, but then I simply saw that he had removed his jacket and boots and was dangling his feet over the parapet beneath which the sly brown Loire was rushing. He greeted us with a cheery wave and beckoned for us to join him. We dragged the bikes down the banking so that they would not be visible from the road, then came to sit beside him. He looked younger than I remembered, almost as young as Cassis, though he moved with a careless assurance that my brother would never have, however much he tried to achieve it.

Cassis and Reinette stared at him in silence, like children at the zoo watching some dangerous animal. Reinette was scarlet. Leibniz seemed unimpressed by our scrutiny and lit a cigarette, grinning.

The widow Petit he said at last through a mouthful of smoke. Very good. He chuckled. Parachute silk and a thousand other things, she was a real black market free-for-all. He gave me a wink. Good work, Backfisch.

The others looked at me in surprise, but said nothing. I remained silent, torn between pleasure and anxiety at his approving words.

Ive had some luck this week, continued Leibniz in the same tone. Chewing gum, chocolate and-he reached into his pocket and brought out a package-this.

This turned out to be a handkerchief, lace edged, which he handed to Reinette. My sister blushed scarlet with confusion.

Then he turned to me. And what about you, Backfisch, what is it you want? He grinned. Lipstick? Face cream? Silk stockings? No, thats more your sisters line. Doll? Teddy bear? He was mocking me gently, his eyes bright and filled with silvery reflections.

Now was the time to admit that my mention of Madame Petit had been nothing but a careless slip of the tongue. But Cassis was still looking at me with that expression of astonishment; Leibniz was smiling; and a gleam of an idea had come into my head.

I did not hesitate. Fishing tackle, I said at once. Proper good fishing tackle. I paused and fixed him with an insolent look, staring him straight in the eyes. And an orange.


| Five Quarters of the Orange | c



Loading...