She explained it to me later as she handed me the clean sheet. Expressionless but for that look of appraisal which she always wore in my presence, mouth thinned almost to invisibility and eyes barbed-wire jags in her pallor.
“It’s the curse come early,” she said. “You’d better have these.” And she gave me a wad of muslin squares, almost like a child’s diapers. She didn’t tell me how to use them.
“Curse?” I’d stayed away all day in the tree house, expecting to die. Her lack of expression infuriated and confused me. I’d always loved drama. I’d imagined myself dead at her feet, flowers at my head. A marble gravestone-Beloved Daughter. I’d told myself that I must have seen Old Mother without knowing it. I was cursed.
“Mother’s curse,” she said as if in agreement. “You’ll be like me now.”
She said nothing more. For a day or two I was afraid, but I did not speak to her about it, and I washed the muslin squares in the Loire. After that the curse ended for a time, and I forgot about it.
Except for the resentment. It was focused now, honed somehow by my fear and my mother’s refusal to comfort. Her words haunted me-you’ll be like me now-and I began to imagine myself changing imperceptibly, growing more like her in sly insidious ways. I pinched my skinny arms and legs because they were hers. I slapped my cheeks to give them color. One day I cut off my hair-so closely that I nicked the scalp in several places-because it refused to curl. I tried to pluck my eyebrows, but I was unskilled at the task and I had already taken most of them off when Reinette found me, squinting over mirror and tweezers with a deep crease of rage between my eyes.
Mother barely noticed. My story-that I had scorched off my hair and eyebrows trying to light the kitchen boiler-seemed to satisfy her. Only once-this must have been on one of her good days-as we were in the kitchen making terrines de lapin, she turned to me with an oddly impulsive look in her face.
“Do you want to go to the pictures today, Boise?” she asked abruptly. “We could go together. You and me.”
The suggestion was so untypical of my mother that I was startled. She never left the farm except on business. She never wasted money on entertainment. Suddenly I noticed that she was wearing a new dress-as new as those straitened days allowed, anyway-with a daring red bodice. She must have made it from scraps in her room during the nights she couldn’t sleep, because I had never seen it before. Her face was slightly flushed, almost girlish, and there was rabbit blood on her outstretched hands.
I recoiled. It had been a gesture of friendship, I knew that. To reject it was unthinkable. And yet there was too much unspoken stuff between us to make that possible. For a second I imagined going to her, letting her arms come around me, telling her everything…
The thought was immediately sobering.
Telling her what? I asked myself sternly. There was too much to say. There was nothing to say. Nothing at all. She looked at me quizzically.
“Boise? What about it?” Her voice was unusually soft, almost caressing. I had a sudden, appalling picture of her in bed with my father, arms outstretched, with that same look of seduction… “We never do anything but work,” she said quietly. “We never seem to have any time. And I’m so tired…”
It was the first time I ever remember hearing her complain. Again I felt the urge to go to her, to feel warmth from her, but it was impossible. We weren’t used to such things. We hardly ever touched. The idea seemed almost indecent.
I muttered something graceless about having seen the film already.
For a moment the bloodstained hands remained, beckoning. Then her face closed and I felt a sudden stab of fierce exhilaration. At last, in our long, bitter game I had scored a point.
“Of course,” she said tonelessly. There was no more talk of going to the cinema, and when I went to Angers that Thursday with Cassis and Reine to see the very film I had despised earlier, she made no comment. Perhaps she had already forgotten.