Hey, Backfisch, almost forgot.“ Turning, he threw it carelessly, like a boy pitching a ball, to see if I’d catch. He was like that, pretending to forget, teasing me, risking the prize in the murky Loire if I was slow or clumsy. ”Your favorite.“
I caught it easily, left-handed. Grinned.
“Tell the others to come by La Mauvaise R'eputation tonight.” Winked, eyes glinting cat-green with mischief. “Might be some fun.”
Of course, Mother would never have let us go out at night. Though the curfew remained largely unenforceable in the remoter villages such as ours, there were other dangers. Night hid more illicit goings-on than we could guess, and by then a number of off-duty Germans had occasionally taken to stopping by at the caf'e for drinks. Apparently they liked to get out of Angers and away from the suspicious eye of the S.S. In the course of our meetings Tomas had mentioned this, and sometimes I heard the sounds of motorbikes on the distant road and thought of him riding home. I saw him clearly in my mind’s eye, hair blown back by the wind, the moonlight shining on his face and the cold white sweep of the Loire. The motorbike riders might have been anyone, of course. But I always thought of Tomas.
Today, however, was different. Emboldened perhaps by our secret time together, anything seemed possible. Slinging his uniform jacket over his shoulders Tomas waved lazily as he drove off, kicking up a cloud of yellow Loire dust beneath his wheels, and suddenly my heart swelled unbearably. Loss flooded through me in a hot-cold wash and I ran after him, tasting his dust, waving my arms for long after his bike vanished down the Angers road, tears beginning to crawl pink channels across my face’s mud mask.
It wasn’t enough.
I’d had my day, my one perfect day, and already my heart was boiling with rage and dissatisfaction. I clocked the sun. Four hours. An impossible time, a whole afternoon, and yet it wasn’t enough, I wanted more. More. The discovery of this new appetite within me made me bite my lips in desperation; the memory of the brief contact between us burnt at my hand like a brand. Several times I lifted my palm to my lips and kissed the burning place his skin had left. I lingered over his words as if they were poetry. I relived every precious moment to myself, with growing disbelief, as on winter mornings I still try to recall the summer. But it is an appetite that no amount of feeding can satisfy. I wanted to see him again, that day, that minute. I had wild thoughts of us running away together, of living in the forest away from people, of myself building him a tree house and eating mushrooms and wild strawberries and chestnuts until the war was over…
Cassis, Reine and Paul found me at the Lookout Post, the orange in one hand, lying on my back and staring into the autumn canopy.
“S-s-said she’d b-be here,” said Paul (he always stammered badly when Reine was there). “S-s-saw her g-oing into the w-woods when I was f-fishing.”
He looked shy and awkward beside Cassis, conscious of his scruffy blue dungarees (cut down from one of his uncle’s overalls) and his bare feet in their wooden clogs. Malabar was with him, tied with a length of green gardening twine. Cassis and Reine wore their school clothes, and Reinette’s hair was tied with a yellow silk ribbon. I always wondered why Paul dressed so shabbily when his mother was a seamstress.
“Are you all right?” Cassis’s voice was sharp with anxiety. “When you didn’t come home, I thought-” He cast a quick dark look at Paul, then one of warning to me. “You know who hasn’t been here, has he?” he whispered, clearly wishing that Paul would leave.
I nodded. Cassis made a gesture of annoyance. “What did I tell you?” he said in a low, furious voice. “What did I say, never to be alone with-” Another glance at Paul. “Anyway, we’d better be going home now,” he said in a louder voice. “Mother will be starting to get worried, and she’s making a pav'e. You’d better hurry up and-”
But Paul was looking at the orange in my hand.
“You g-got another un,” he said in his slow, curious way.
Cassis gave me a look of disgust. Why couldn’t you hide it, stupid? Now we’ll have to share it with him.
I hesitated. Sharing was not in my plan. I needed the orange for tonight. And yet I could see Paul was already curious. Ready to talk.
“I’ll give you some if you don’t tell,” I said at last.
“Where’s it f-from?”
“Swapped it down the market,” I said glibly. “For some sugar and parachute silk. Mother doesn’t know.”
Paul nodded, then looked shyly at Reine. “We could all sh-share it now,” he said tentatively. “I’ve gotta knife.”
“Give it to me,” I said.
“I’ll do it,” said Cassis at once.
“No, it’s mine,” I said. “Let me.”
I was thinking rapidly. Of course I might be able to retrieve some of the orange peel, but I didn’t want Cassis to suspect.
I turned my back on them to divide the orange, slicing carefully to avoid cutting my hand. Cutting quarters would have been easy, slice down the middle, then slice again, but this time I needed to cut an extra piece, large enough for my purpose but too small to be immediately noticeable as missing from the rest, a piece I could slip into my pocket for later… As I sliced it I saw that Tomas’s gift was a Seville blood orange, a sanguine, and for an instant I was transfixed at the red juice dripping from my fingers.
“Hurry up, clumsy,” said Cassis impatiently. “How long does it take to cut an orange into quarters?”
“I’m trying,” I snapped. “The skin’s so tough.”
“L-let m-m-m-” Paul made a move toward me and for a second I was sure he’d seen it, the fifth piece, no more than a sliver really, before I slid it into my sleeve and out of sight.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’ve done it now.”
The pieces were uneven. I had done the best I could, but still there was one quarter that was noticeably bigger than the rest, and another that was very small. I took the small piece. I noticed Paul gave the large one to Reine.
Cassis watched in disgust. “I told you you should have let me do it,” he said. “Mine isn’t a proper quarter. You’re so clumsy, Boise.”
I sucked my piece of orange in silence. After a while Cassis stopped grumbling and ate his. I saw Paul watching me with an odd expression, but he didn’t say anything.
We threw our pieces of peel into the river. I did manage to save one piece of mine in my mouth, but I threw in the rest, uneasily aware of Cassis’s eyes on me, and was relieved to see him relax a little. I wondered what he might have suspected. I transferred the bitten-off piece of peel into my pocket with the illicit fifth quarter, feeling pleased.
I just hoped it would be enough.
I showed the others how to clean their hands and mouths with mint and fennel and to rub under their fingernails with mud to hide the orange-peel stain, then we went home through the fields to where Mother, singing tonelessly to herself in the kitchen, was preparing dinner.
“Sweat the onion and shallots in olive oil with some fresh rosemary, mushrooms and a small leek. Add a handful of dried tomatoes, basil and thyme. Cut four anchovies lengthways and place in the pan. Leave for five minutes.
“Boise, some anchovies from the barrel. Four big ones.”
I went down to the cellar with a dish and the wooden tongs so that the salt would not crack open the skin of my palms. I took out the fish, then the orange bag in its protective jar. I added the new piece of orange, squeezing the oil and juice onto the old peel to revive it, then chopped what was left with my pocketknife and tied it into the bag. The scent was immediate and pungent. I sealed the bag back into the jar, rubbed the glass clean of salt and placed it in my apron pocket so that no more of the precious scent could escape. I touched my palms briefly against the salted fish so that Mother would be deceived.
“Add a cupful of white wine and the parboiled, floury potatoes. Add cooking scraps-bacon rind, leftover meat or fish-and a tablespoon of oil. Cook on a very low heat for ten minutes without stirring or lifting the lid.”
I could hear her singing to herself in the kitchen. She had a monotonous, rather grating voice, which rose and fell at intervals.
“Add the raw unsoaked millet-hnn hnnn-and turn off the heat. Leave covered for-hnnn hnnn-ten minutes without stirring or-hnnnn-until the juices have been absorbed. Press into a shallow dish-hnn hnn hnnn-brush with oil and bake until crisp.”
With a keen eye to what was happening in the kitchen, I put the orange bag under the heating pipes for the last time.
For a time I was sure it wasn’t going to work. Mother stayed in the kitchen, humming to herself in that tuneless dogged way. As well as the pav'e there was also a cake black with berries and bowls of green salad and tomatoes. Almost a celebration dinner, though what we had to celebrate I couldn’t guess. Mother was like that sometimes; on good days there would be a feast, and on bad we would make do with cold pancakes and a smear of rillettes. Today she seemed almost fey, hair falling from its usually severe scraped-back style into casual tendrils, face moist and pink with the heat of the fire. There was a feverish quality about her, in the way she spoke to us, the quick breathless hug she gave Reine as she came in-a rarity almost as unusual as her brief episodes of violence-the tone in her voice, the way her hands moved in the basin, on the chopping board, with quick nervous flutterings of the fingers.
Out of pills.
A crease between her eyes, creases around her mouth, her strained, effortful smile. She looked at me as I handed her the anchovies and gave a smile of peculiar sweetness, a smile that a month ago, a day ago, might almost have softened my heart.
I thought of Tomas sitting by the riverbank. I thought of the thing that I had seen, the oil-slick, monstrous beauty of its flank against the water. I wish. I wish. He’d be there tonight, I told myself, at La Mauvaise R'eputation. Jacket slung casually across a chair back. I imagined myself, grown suddenly movie-star beautiful and refined, silk dress billowing out behind me, everyone staring. I wish. I wish. If I’d only had my rod…
My mother was staring at me with that expression of strange, almost embarrassing vulnerability.
“Boise?” she repeated. “Are you all right? Do you feel ill?”
I shook my head in silence. The wave of self-hatred that struck me was whiplash quick, a revelation. I wish…I wish…I made my face sullen. Tomas. Only you. Forever.
“I’ve got to check my traps,” I told her in my dead voice. “I won’t be long.”
“Boise!” I heard her call after me, but I ignored her. I ran to the river, checked each trap twice, certain that this time, this time, when I needed that wish…
All empty. I threw the small fry-bleaks, gudgeons, flat small-snouted eels-back into the river in sudden, searing rage.
“Where are you?” I screeched across the silent water. “Where are you, you sly old bitch?”
Below my feet the dim Loire flowed unmoved, brown and mocking. I wish. I wish. I picked up a stone from the bank and threw it as far as I could, wrenching my shoulder painfully.
“Where are you? Where are you hiding?” My voice sounded hoarse and shrill, like my mother’s. The air sizzled with my fury. “Come out and show yourself! Dare you! DARE YOU!”
Nothing. Nothing but the brown snaky river and the sandbanks lying half drowned in the failing light. My throat felt raw and scraped. Tears stung the corners of my eyes like wasps.
“I know you can hear me,” I said in a low voice. “I know you’re there.”
The river seemed to agree with me. I could hear the silky sounds of the water against the bank at my feet.
“I know you’re there,” I said again, almost caressingly. Everything seemed to be listening to me now, the trees with their turning leaves, the water, the burnt autumn grass.
“You know what I want, don’t you?” Again that voice, which sounded like someone else’s, that adult, seductive voice. “You know.”
I thought of Jeannette Gaudin then and the water snake, of the long brown bodies hanging up against the Standing Stones and the feeling I had had, earlier that summer a million years ago, the conviction.…It was an abomination. A monster. No one could make a pact with a monster.
I wish. I wish.
I wondered whether Jeannette had stood where I was now, barefoot and looking over the water. What did she wish for? A new dress? A doll to play with? Something else?
White cross. Beloved Daughter. Suddenly it didn’t seem such a terrible thing to be dead and beloved, a plaster angel at your head and silence…
I wish. I wish.
“I’d throw you back,” I whispered slyly. “You know I would.”
For a second I thought I saw something. Bristle black in the water, a shining silent something like a mine, all teeth and metal. But it was just my imagination.
“I would,” I repeated softly. “I’d throw you back.”
But if it had been there at all, it wasn’t now. Beside me a frog belched suddenly, absurdly. It was getting cold. I turned and went back across the fields the way I came, picking a few ears of corn to excuse my late arrival.
After a while I began to smell the pav'e cooking, and I quickened my step.