We didn’t see Tomas until over a fortnight after the dance at La Mauvaise R'eputation. That was partly because of Mother-still half crazy with insomnia and migraines-and partly because we sensed that something had changed. We all sensed it; Cassis, hiding behind his comic books, Reine in her new, blank silence, even myself. Oh, we longed for him. All three of us did-love is not something that you can turn off like a tap, and we were already trying in our way to excuse what he had done, what he had abetted.
But the ghost of old Gustave Beauchamp swam beneath us like the menacing shadow of a sea monster. It touched everything. We played with Paul almost in the way we had before Tomas, but our games were halfhearted, pushing us to fake exuberance to hide the fact that the life had gone out of them. We swam in the river, ran in the woods, climbed trees with more energy than ever before, but behind it all we knew we were waiting, aching and itching with impatience, for him to come. I think we all believed he might be able to make it better, even then.
I certainly thought so. He was always so sure, so arrogantly self-confident. I imagined him with his cigarette hanging from his lips and his cap pushed back, the sun in his eyes and that smile lighting his face, that smile which lit the world…
But Thursday came and went, and we saw nothing of Tomas. Cassis looked for him at school, but there was no sign of him in any of his usual places. Hauer, Schwartz and Heinemann were also strangely absent, almost as if they were avoiding contact. Another Thursday came and went. We pretended not to notice, did not even mention his name to one another, though we may have whispered it in our dreams, going through the motions of life without him as if we didn’t care whether we saw him again or not. I became almost frenzied now in my hunt for Old Mother. I checked the traps I had laid ten or twenty times a day, and was always setting new ones. I stole food from the cellar in order to make new and tempting baits for her. I swam out to the Treasure Stone and sat there for hours with my rod, watching the gracious arc of the line as it dipped into the water and listening to the sounds of the river at my feet.
Rapha"el called to see Mother again. Business at the caf'e was poor. Someone had painted COLLABORATOR on the back wall in red paint, and someone had thrown stones at his windows one night, so that now they had to be boarded up. I watched from behind the door as he spoke in a low urgent voice to Mother.
“It isn’t my fault, Mirabelle,” he said. “You have to believe that. I wasn’t responsible.”
My mother made a noncommittal sound between her teeth.
“You can’t argue with the Germans,” said Rapha"el. “You have to treat them as you would any other customer. It isn’t as if I was the only one…”
Mother shrugged. “In this village, perhaps you are,” she said indifferently.
“How can you say that? You were pleased enough yourself at one time-”
Mother lunged forward. Rapha"el took a hasty step back, rattling the plates on the dresser. Her voice was low and furious.
“Shut up, you fool,” she said. “That’s over, do you hear? Over. And if I even suspect you’ve said a word to anyone-”
Rapha"el’s face was sallow with fear, but he tried for bluster.
“I’m not having anyone calling me a fool-” he began in a shaking voice.
“I’ll call you a fool and your mother a whore if I want to!” My mother’s voice was hard and shrill. “You’re a fool and a coward, Rapha"el Crespin, and we both know it.” She was standing so close to him that I could hardly see his face, though I could still see his hands splayed out either side of her as if in entreaty. “But if you or anyone talks about this-God help you, if my children get to hear anything because of you”-I could hear her breathing, harsh as dead leaves in the tiny kitchen-“then I’ll kill you,” whispered my mother, and Rapha"el must have believed her, because his face was white as curd when he left the house, his hands shaking so badly he jammed them into his pockets.
“Anyone messes with my children, and I’ll kill the bastards,” spat my mother in his wake, and I saw him wince as if her words were poison. “Kill the bastards,” repeated my mother, even though Rapha"el was almost down to the gate by then, half-running, head lowered as if against a strong wind.
They were words that would return to haunt us.
She was in vicious humor all day. Paul caught the lash of her tongue when he came to ask Cassis to play. Mother, who had been silently brewing trouble since Rapha"el’s visit, launched such a fierce and unprovoked attack upon him that he was able only to stare at her, his mouth working, his voice locked into an agonizing stutter. “I’m so-so-so-so I’m so-so-so-”
“Talk properly, you cretin!” screamed my mother in her glassy voice, and for a second I thought I saw Paul’s mild eyes light with something almost savage, then he turned without uttering a word and fled jerkily toward the Loire, his voice returning as he did and ululating behind him in a series of weird, desperate trills as he ran.
“Good riddance!” shouted my mother after him, slamming the door.
“You shouldn’t have said that,” I said stonily to her back. “It isn’t Paul’s fault he stammers.”
My mother turned to look at me, her eyes like agates. “You would side with him,” she said in a flat voice. “If it was the choice between me and a Nazi, you’d side with the Nazi.”