We met him again, in the same place, a week later. Cassis gave him a rumor about late-night gambling at Le Chat Rouget and a few words he’d overheard from Cur'e Traquet outside the cemetery about a secret cache of church silver.
But Leibniz seemed preoccupied.
“I had to keep this from the others,” he told me. “They might not have liked me giving it to you.” From under the army jacket lying carelessly on the riverbank he drew out a narrow green-canvas bag about a meter long that made a small rattling sound as he pushed it toward me. “It’s for you,” he said as I hesitated. “Go on.”
In the bag was a fishing rod. Not a new one, but even I could see that it was a fine piece, dark bamboo worn almost black with age and a gleaming metal reel that spun beneath my fingers just as neatly as if it were on ball bearings. I gave a long, slow sigh of amazement.
“Is it…mine?” I asked, not daring quite to believe it.
Leibniz laughed, a bright, uncomplicated sound. “Of course,” he said. “We fishermen have to stick together, don’t we?”
I touched the rod with tentative, eager fingers. The reel felt cool and slightly oily to the touch, as if had been packed in grease.
“But you’ll have to keep it safe, eh, Backfisch?” he told me. “No going telling your parents and friends. You do know how to keep a secret, don’t you?”
I nodded. “Of course.”
He smiled. His eyes were a clear, dark gray. “Get that pike you were telling me about, eh?”
I nodded again, and he laughed. “Believe me, with that rod you could catch a U-Boot.”
I looked at him critically for a moment, just to see how much he was teasing me. Clearly he was amused, but it was a kind mockery, I decided, and he had kept his side of the bargain. Only one thing troubled me.
“Madame Petit…” I began hesitantly. “Nothing very bad will happen to her, will it?”
Leibniz dragged on his cigarette, then flicked the stub into the water.
“I shouldn’t think so,” he said carelessly. “Not if she minds her mouth.” He gave me a sudden sharp look, which included Cassis and Reinette. “And you, all three of you. You keep all this to yourselves, all right?”
“Oh, one more thing for you.” He put his hand into his pocket. “You’ll have to share, I’m afraid. I could only find one.” And he held out an orange.
He was charming, you see. We were all charmed-Cassis less so than Reine and I, perhaps because he was the eldest and understood more about the dangers we were running-Reinette rosy-cheeked and shy and I… Well, perhaps it was I most of all. It began with the fishing rod, but there were a dozen other things, his accent, the lazy ways he had, the careless look of him and his laughter… Oh, he was a real charmer all right, not like Cassis’s son Yannick tried to be, with his brash ways and his weaselly eyes. No, Tomas Leibniz had a natural way with him, even for a lonely child with a headful of nonsense.
It was nothing I could put my finger on. Reine might have said that it was the way he looked at you without saying anything, or the way his eyes changed color-sometimes gray-green, sometimes brown-gray, like the river-or how he walked with his cap tilted back on his head and his hands in his pockets, like a boy playing truant from school… Cassis might have said that it was his reckless quality-the way he could swim the Loire at its widest point or hang upside down from the Lookout Post just as if he were a boy of fourteen, with a boy’s contempt for danger. He knew all about Les Laveuses before he even set foot there; he was a country lad from the Black Forest, and he was full of anecdotes about his family, his sisters, his brother, his plans. He was always making plans. There were days when everything he said seemed to begin with the same words-when I’m rich and the war is over… Oh, there was no end to what he’d do. He was the first adult we had ever met who still thought like a boy, planned like a boy, and maybe in the end that was what attracted us to him. He was one of us, that was all. He played by our rules.
He had killed one Englishman and two Frenchmen so far in the course of the war. He made no secret of it, but the way he told the story you would have sworn he had no choice. It could have been our father, I thought afterward. But even so, I would have forgiven him. I would have forgiven him anything.
Of course, I was guarded at first. We met him three times more, twice alone at the river, once in the cinema with the others, Hauer, Heinemann-squat and red-haired-and slow, fat Schwartz. Twice we sent notes via the boy at the newspaper stand, twice more we received cigarettes, magazines, books, chocolate and a packet of nylon stockings for Reinette. People are less wary of children, as a rule. They guard their tongues less. We gleaned more information that way than you could ever imagine, and we passed it all, on to Hauer, Heinemann, Schwartz and Leibniz. The other soldiers hardly spoke to us. Schwartz, who spoke little French, would sometimes leer at Reinette and whisper at her in guttural, greasy-sounding German. Hauer was stiff and awkward, and Heinemann was full of nervous energy, scratching incessantly at the reddish stubble that seemed an indelible part of his face… The others made me uneasy.
But not Tomas. Tomas was one of us. He was able to reach us in a way no one else did. It was nothing as obvious as our mother’s indifference or the loss of our father, or even the lack of playmates or the privations of war. We were barely aware of those things ourselves, living as we did in our savage little world of the imagination. We were certainly taken by surprise at how desperately we needed Tomas. Not for what he brought us, the chocolate and chewing gum and makeup and magazines. We needed someone to tell about our exploits, someone to impress, a fellow conspirator with the energy of youth and the polish of experience, a teller of finer stories than even Cassis could dream of. It didn’t happen overnight, of course. We were wild animals, just as Mother said, and we took some taming. He must have known that from the start, the clever way he set out to take us one by one, making each feel special… Even now, God help me, I can almost believe it. Even now.
I hid the rod in the treasure chest for safekeeping. I had to be careful when I used it, because everybody in Les Laveuses was apt to mind your business for you if you didn’t mind it yourself, and it wouldn’t take more than a chance comment to alert Mother. Paul knew, of course, but I told him that the rod had belonged to my father, and with the stammer he had, he was never one to gossip. In any case, if he ever suspected anything, he kept it to himself, and I was grateful for that.
July turned hot and sour, with thunderstorms every other day and the sky roiling mad and purple-gray over the river. At the end of the month the Loire burst its banks, washing all my traps and nets away downstream, then spilling down into Hourias’s cornfields, with the corn just yellow-green and three weeks from full ripeness. It rained almost every night that month, and lightning sheeted down like great crackling rolls of silver paper so that Reinette screamed and hid under her bed, and Cassis and I stood at the open window with our mouths open to see if we could catch radio signals on our teeth. Mother had more headaches than ever, and I only used the orange bag-revitalized now with the skin of the orange Tomas had given us-twice that month and into the next. The rest was her own problem, and she often slept badly and woke with a mouth full of barbed wire and not a kind thought in her head. On those days, I thought of Tomas like a starving man thinks of food. I think the others did the same.
The rain was hard on our fruit too. Apples and pears and plums swelled grotesquely then split and rotted right on the trees, and wasps squeezed into the sickly clefts so that the trees were brown with them and buzzing sluggishly. My mother did what she could. She covered some of her favorites with tarpaulins to keep the rain off, but even that was little use. The soil, baked hard and white by the June sun, turned to slush beneath the feet, and the trees stood in pools of water, rotting their exposed roots. Mother piled sawdust and earth around their bases to protect them from the rot, but it was no good. The fruit fell to the ground and made sweetish mud-soup. What could be retrieved we saved and made into green-fruit jam, but we all knew the harvest was spoiled before it even had a chance. Mother stopped talking to us altogether. In those weeks her mouth was perpetually set in a small white line, her eyes holes. The tic that heralded her headaches was almost permanent, and the level of pills in the jar in the bathroom diminished more rapidly than ever.
Market days were especially silent and cheerless. We sold what we could-harvests were bad all through the county, and there wasn’t a farmer along the Loire who hadn’t suffered-but beans, potatoes, carrots, squash, even tomatoes had sickened with the heat and the rain, and there was precious little to sell. Instead we took to selling our winter stocks, the preserves and dried meats and terrines and confits that Mother had made last time a pig was slaughtered, and because she was desperate, she treated every sale as if it were her last. Some days her look was so black and sour that customers turned tail and fled rather than buy from her, and I was left writhing in embarrassment for her-for us-while she stood stony-faced and unseeing, one finger at her temple like the barrel of a gun.
One week we arrived at the market to find Madame Petit’s shop boarded up. Monsieur Loup, the fishmonger, told me she just packed her things and went one day, giving no reason and leaving no forwarding address.
“Was it the Germans?” I demanded with a slight unease. “I mean, her being a Jew and everything?”
Monsieur Loup gave me a strange look. “Don’t know anything abut that,” he said. “I just know she upped and left one day. I never heard anything about the other thing, and if you’ve any sense you won’t go round telling anyone, either.” His expression was so cool and disapproving that I apologized, abashed, and backed away, almost forgetting my packet of scraps.
My relief that Madame Petit had not been arrested was tempered with an odd feeling of disappointment. For a while I brooded in silence, then I began to make discreet inquiries in Angers and in the village concerning the people about whom we had passed on information. Madame Petit, Monsieur Toupet or Toubon, the barber opposite Le Chat Rouget who received so many parcels, the two men we had heard talking outside the Palais-Dor'e one Thursday after the film… Strangely enough, the idea that we might have passed on worthless information-perhaps to the amusement or scorn of Tomas and the others-troubled me more than the possibility of causing harm to any of the people we denounced.
I think Cassis and Reinette already knew the truth. But nine is a different continent from twelve and fourteen. Little by little I came to realize that not a single one of the people we had denounced had been arrested or even questioned, or a single one of the places we had named as suspect raided by the Germans. Even the mysterious disappearance of Monsieur Toubon or Toupet, the bad-tempered Latin teacher, was easily explained.
“Oh, he was called to go to his daughter’s wedding in Rennes,” said Monsieur Doux airily. “No mystery there, little puss. I delivered the invitation myself.”
I fretted about it for almost a month, until the uncertainty was like a barrel of wasps in my head, all buzzing at once. I thought about it when I was out fishing, or laying traps, or playing gunfights with Paul, or digging dens in the woods. I grew thinner. My mother looked at me critically and announced that I was growing so fast it was affecting my health. She took me to Docteur Lema^itre, who prescribed a glass of red wine for me every day, but even this made no difference. I began to imagine people following me, talking about me. I lost my appetite. I imagined that somehow Tomas and the others might be secret members of the Resistance, even now taking steps to eliminate me. Finally I told Cassis about my worries.
We were alone at the Lookout Post. It had been raining again, and Reinette was at home with a head cold. I didn’t set out to tell him everything, but once I had started the words began to spill out of me like grain from a burst sack. There was no stopping them. I had the green bag with my fishing rod in one hand, and in a rage I flung it right out of the tree and into the bushes, where it fell in a tangle of blackberries.
“We’re not babies!” I yelled furiously. “Don’t they believe the things we tell them? Why did Tomas give me this”-a wild gesture at the distant fishing bag-“if I didn’t earn it?”
Cassis looked at me, bewildered. “Anyone would think you wanted someone to get shot,” he said uncomfortably.
“Of course not.” My voice was sullen. “I just thought-”
“You never thought at all.” The tone was that of the old, superior Cassis, impatient and rather scornful. “You really think we’d help to get people locked up or shot? That’s what you think we’d do?” He sounded shocked, but underneath I knew he was flattered.
That’s just what I think, I thought. If it suited you, Cassis, I’m sure that’s exactly what you’d do. I shrugged.
“You’re so na"ive, Framboise,” said my brother loftily. “You’re really too young to be involved in something like this.”
It was then that I knew that even he hadn’t understood at the start. He was quicker than I was, but at the beginning he hadn’t known. On that first day at the cinema he’d really been afraid, sour with sweat and excitement. And later, talking to Tomas…I had seen fear in his eyes. Later, only later, had he understood the truth.
Cassis made a gesture of impatience and turned his gaze away. “Blackmail!” he spat furiously into my face, starring me with spittle. “Don’t you get it? That’s all it is! Do you think they’re having an easy time with it, back in Germany? Do you think they’re any better off than we are? That their children have shoes, or chocolate, or any of that stuff? Don’t you think they might sometimes want those things too?”
I gaped at him.
“You never thought at all!” I knew that he was furious, not with my ignorance, but with his own. “It’s just the same over there, stupid!” he shouted. “They’re putting things away to send home. Getting to know stuff about people, then making them pay to keep quiet. You heard what he said about Madame Petit. ”A real black market free-for-all.“ You think they’d have let her go if he’d told anyone about it?” He was panting now, close to laughter. “Not on your life! Haven’t you ever heard of what they do to Jews in Paris? Haven’t you ever heard of the death camps?”
I shrugged, feeling stupid. Of course I had heard of these things. It was just that in Les Laveuses things were different. We’d all read about Nazi death camps, but in my mind they had got somehow tangled with the death ray from The War of the Worlds. Hitler had been muddled with the pictures of Charlie Chaplin from Reinette’s film magazines, fact fusing with folklore, rumor, fiction, newsreel broadcast melting into serial-story star-fighters from beyond the planet Mars and night fighters across the Rhine, gunslingers and firing squad, U-Boots and the Nautilus twenty thousand leagues under.
“Blackmail?” I repeated blankly.
“Business,” corrected Cassis in a sharp voice. “Do you think it’s fair that some people have chocolate-and coffee, and proper shoes, and magazines, and books-while others have to do without? Don’t you think they should pay for those privileges? Share a little of what they’ve got? And hypocrites-like Monsieur Toubon-and liars? Don’t you think they should pay too? It’s not as if they can’t afford it. It’s not as if anyone gets hurt.”
It might have been Tomas speaking. That made his words very difficult to ignore.
Slowly I nodded.
I thought Cassis looked relieved. “It isn’t even stealing,” he continued eagerly. “That black market stuff belongs to everyone. I’m just making sure that we all get our fair share of it.”
“Like Robin Hood.”
I nodded again. Put that way, it did seem perfectly fair and reasonable.
Satisfied, I went to retrieve my fishing bag from where it lay in the blackberry tangle, happy in the knowledge that I had earned it, after all.