As I said, it was a perfect day. It’s difficult from the distance of fifty-five years to explain the tremulous joy of those few hours; at nine one is so raw that a single word is sometimes enough to draw blood, and I was more sensitive than most, almost expecting him to spoil everything… I never asked myself whether I loved him. It was irrelevant to the moment. Impossible to equate what I felt-that aching, desperate joy-with the language of Reinette’s favorite movies. And yet that was what it was. My own confusion, my loneliness, the strangeness with my mother, the separation from my sister and brother, had formed a kind of hunger, a mouth opening instinctively to any scrap of kindness, even from a German, a cheery extortionist who cared for nothing but keeping his information channels open.
I tell myself now that that was all he wanted. Even so, some part of me denies it. That wasn’t all it was. There was more to it than that. He took pleasure in meeting me, in talking to me. Why else would he have stayed so long? I remember every word, every gesture, every intonation. He talked about his home in Germany, of Bierwurst and Schnitzel, of the Black Forest and the streets of old Hamburg and the Rhineland, of Feuerzangenbohle with a burning orange studded with cloves in a bowl of steaming punch, and Keks and Str"udel and Backenoff and Frikadelle with mustard and the apples which used to grow in his grandfather’s garden before the war, and I talked about Mother and her pills and her strangeness and the orange bag and the cray pots and the broken clock with the cracked face, and how when I got my wish I would wish for this day to go on forever and ever…
He looked at me then, an oddly adult look passing between us, like some variant of Cassis’s staring-out game. This time I was the first to look away.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered.
“It’s okay,” he told me, and somehow it was. We picked some more mushrooms and some wild thyme-so much more strongly scented than the cultivated, with its tiny purple flowers-and some late strawberries under a stump. As he climbed over a deadfall of birches I touched his back fleetingly-a pretense of steadying myself-and felt the warmth of his skin seared into my palm for hours after that, like a brand. And then we sat by the river and watched the red disk of the sun go behind the trees and for a moment I was sure I saw something, black against the black water, something half visible in the center of a great V of ripples, a mouth, an eye, the oil-slick curve of a rolling flank, a double row of fangs whiskered with ancient fishhooks… Something of awesome, unbelievable proportions that vanished the moment I tried to give it a name, leaving nothing but ripples and a churning of troubled water where it might have been…
I leaped to my feet, heart hammering wildly. “Tomas! Did you see that?”
Tomas looked up at me lazily, a cigarette stub between his teeth. “Floating log,” he told me laconically. “Log in the current. Seen them all the time.”
“It wasn’t!” My voice was high and trembling with excitement. “I saw it, Tomas! It was her, it was her, Old Mother, Old Moth-” With a sudden, lurching burst of speed, I began to run toward the Lookout Post to fetch my fishing rod.
Tomas gave a chuckle. “You’ll never make it,” he said. “Even if it was the old pike, and believe me, Backfisch, no pike ever grows to be that big.”
“It was Old Mother,” I insisted stubbornly. “It was. It was. Three meters long, Paul says, and black as pitch. It couldn’t have been anything else. It was her.”
I met his bright, challenging gaze for a second or two and then dropped it, abashed.
“It was,” I repeated, half under my breath. “It was. I know it was.”
Well, I often wondered about that. Maybe it was just a floating log, as Tomas said. Certainly when I finally caught her Old Mother was nothing like three meters in length, though she was certainly the biggest pike any of us had ever seen. Pikes don’t ever grow as long as that, I tell myself, and what I saw-or thought I saw-on the river that day was easily as big as one of the crocodiles that Johnny Weissmuller used to wrestle with at the Palais-Dor'e.
But that’s an adult reasoning. In those days there were no such barriers to belief as logic or realism. We saw what we saw, and sometimes if what we saw made adults laugh, who was to say where the truth lay? In my heart I know I saw a monster that day, something as old and cunning as the river itself, something no one could ever catch. She took Jeannette Gaudin. She took Tomas Leibniz. She almost took me.