It was early September now, and summer was drawing to an end. Still hot, there was a new ripeness in the air, something rich and swollen, a sweet scent of honey decay. The bad August rains had spoiled much of the fruit harvest, and what remained was black with wasps, but we picked it anyway-we could not afford waste, and what could not be sold as fresh fruit might still make jam or liqueur for the winter. My mother supervised the operation, giving us all thick gloves to wear and wooden tongs (once used for picking washing out of the boiling vats at the laundry) to pick up the fallen fruit. I remember the wasps were especially mean that year, perhaps scenting the approach of autumn and their coming deaths, for they stung us repeatedly in spite of our gloves as we flung the half-rotten fruit into the big boiling pans for jam. The jam itself was half wasps at first, and Reine-who loathed insects-was almost hysterical at having to scoop their half-dead bodies from the scummy surface of the red liquid with a slotted spoon, flinging them far onto the path in a spray of plum juice where soon enough their living companions were crawling stickily. Mother had no patience with such behavior. We were not expected to be afraid of such things as wasps, and when Reine screamed and cried at having to pick up the swarming masses of windfall plums, she spoke to her more sharply than usual.
“Don’t be more of a fool than God made you, girl,” she snapped. “Do you think the plums will pick themselves? Or do you expect the rest of us to do it for you?”
Reine whimpered, hands held out stiffly in front of her, her face twisted with loathing and fear.
My mother’s tone grew dangerous. For a moment her voice sounded waspy, buzzing with menace.
“Go to it,” she said, “or I’ll give you something to whine about,” and she pushed Reinette hard toward the pile of plums we had collected, a pile of spongy half-fermented fruit volatile with wasps. Reinette found herself in a swarm of insects and screamed, recoiling toward my mother, eyes closed so that she did not see the sudden spasm of rage which crossed Mother’s face. For a moment Mother looked almost blank, then she grabbed Reinette, who was still screaming hysterically, by the arm and marched her quickly, wordlessly toward the house. Cassis and I looked at each other but made no move to follow. We knew better than that. When Reinette began to scream more loudly, each scream punctuated by a sound like the crack of a small air rifle, we simply shrugged and went back to work among the wasps, using the wooden tongs to scoop drifts of spoiled plums into the bins that lined the path.
After what seemed like a long while, the sounds of Reinette being whipped ceased, and she and my mother came out of the house-Mother still holding the piece of washing line she had used-and set to work again in silence, Reinette sniffing occasionally and wiping at her reddened eyes. After a while Mother’s tic began again, and she went to her room, leaving us with terse instructions to finish picking up the windfalls and to put the jam on to boil. She never mentioned the incident later, or seemed even to recall its having happened, though I heard Reinette tossing and whimpering in the night and saw the red weals on her legs as she put on her nightdress.
Unusual though it was, it was far from the last unusual thing Mother was to do that summer, and it was very soon forgotten-except by Reinette, of course. We had other things to think about.