Then came the business with the article. I didn’t read it myself, you understand; it came in the kind of magazine that seems to view food simply as a style accessory-This year we’re all eating couscous, darling, it’s absolutely de rigueur-while for me food is simply food, a pleasure for the senses, a carefully constructed piece of ephemera, like fireworks, hard work sometimes, but not to be taken seriously, not art, for heaven’s sake, in one end and out the other. Anyway, there it was one day, in one of these fashion magazines. “Travels down the Loire,” or some such thing, a famous chef sampling restaurants on his way to the coast. I remember him too: a thin little man with his own salt and pepper pots wrapped in a napkin, and a notebook on his lap. He had my pa"ella antillaise and the warm artichoke salad, then a piece of my mother’s kouign amann, with my own cidre bouch'e and a glass of liqueur framboise to finish. He asked me a lot of questions about my recipes, wanted to see my kitchen, my garden, was amazed when I showed him my cellar with its shelves of terrines and preserves and aromatic oils (walnut, rosemary, truffle) and vinegars (raspberry, lavender, sour apple), asked where I trained and seemed almost upset when the question made me laugh.
Perhaps I said too much. I was flattered, you see. Invited him to taste this and that. A slice of rillettes, another of my saucisson sec. A sip of my pear liqueur, the poir'e my mother used to make in October with the windfall pears, fermenting already as they lay on the hot ground, gloved with brown wasps so that we had to use wooden tongs to pick them up… I showed him the truffle my mother had left me, carefully preserved in the oil like a fly in amber, and smiled as his eyes widened in amazement.
Have you any idea what a thing like that is worth?
Yes, I was flattered in my vanity. A little lonely too, perhaps; glad to talk to this man who knew my language, who could name the herbs in a terrine as he tasted it and who told me I was too good for this place, that it was a crime… Perhaps I dreamed a little. I should have known better.
The article came a few months later. Someone brought it to me, torn out of the magazine. A photograph of the cr^eperie, a couple of paragraphs.
“Visitors to Angers in search of authentic gourmet cuisine may head for the prestigious Aux D'elices Dessanges. In so doing they would certainly miss one of the most exciting discoveries of my travels down the Loire…” Frantically I tried to remember whether I had told him about Yannick. “Behind the unpretentious facade of a country farmhouse a culinary miracle is at work.” A great deal of nonsense followed about “country traditions given a new lease of life by this lady’s creative genius”-impatiently, with a rising sense of panic I scanned the page for signs of the inevitable. A single mention of the name Dartigen and all my careful building work might begin to crumble…
It may seem I’m exaggerating. I’m not. The war is vividly remembered in Les Laveuses. There are people here who still don’t speak to each other. Denise Mouriac and Lucile Dupr'e, Jean-Marie Bonet and Colin Brassaud. Wasn’t there that business in Angers a few years ago, when an old woman was found locked in a room above a top-floor flat? Her parents had shut her there in 1945, when they found out she’d collaborated with the Germans. She was sixteen. Fifty years later they brought her out, old and mad, when her father finally died.
And what about those old men-eighty, ninety, some of them-locked away for war crimes? Blind old men, sick old men sweetened by dementia, their faces slack and uncomprehending. Impossible to believe that they might once have been young. Impossible to imagine bloody dreams inside those fragile, forgetful skulls. Smash the vessel, the essence evades you. The crime takes on a life-a justification-of its own.
“By a strange coincidence, the owner of Cr^epe Framboise, Mme. Francoise Simon, just happens to be related to the owner of Aux D'elices Dessanges…”
My breath stopped. I felt as if a flake of fire had blocked my windpipe and suddenly I was underwater, brown river clutching me under, fingers of flame reaching into my throat, my lungs…
“…our very own Laure Dessanges! Strange to say that she hasn’t managed to find out many of her aunt’s secrets. I for one much preferred the unpretentious charm of Cr^epe Framboise to any of Laure’s elegant (but all too meager!) offerings.”
I breathed again. Not the nephew, but the niece. I had escaped discovery.
I promised myself then that there would be no more foolishness. No more talking to kind food writers. A photographer from another Paris magazine came to interview me a week later, but I refused to see him. Requests for interviews came by the post, but I left them unanswered. A publisher wrote to me with an offer to write a book of recipes. For the first time Cr^epe Framboise was deluged by people from Angers, by tourists, by elegant people with flashy new cars. I turned them away by the dozen. I had my regulars, my ten to fifteen tables. I could not accommodate so many people.
I tried to behave as normally as I could. I refused to take advance bookings. People queued on the pavement. I had to engage another waitress, but otherwise I ignored the unwelcome attention. Even when the little food writer returned to argue-to reason with me-I would not listen to him. No, I would not allow him to use my recipes in his column. No, there was to be no book. No pictures. Cr^epe Framboise would stay as it was, a provincial cr^eperie.
I knew that if I stonewalled for long enough they would leave me alone. But by that time the damage was done. Now Laure and Yannick knew where to find me.
Cassis must have told them. He had settled in a flat near the center of Paris, and though he had never been a good correspondent he wrote to me occasionally. His letters were filled with reports of his famous daughter-in-law, his fine son. Well, after the article and the stir it caused, they made it their business to find me. They brought Cassis with them, like a present. They seemed to think we would be moved, somehow, at seeing each other again after so many years, but though his eyes watered in a rheumy, sentimental sort of way, mine stayed resolutely dry. There was hardly a trace of the older brother with whom I had shared so much; he was fat now, his features lost in a shapeless dough, his nose reddened, his cheeks crack-glazed with broken veins, his smile vacillating. In place of what I once felt for him-the hero worship of the big brother who in my mind could do anything, climb the highest tree, brave wild bees to steal their honey, swim right across the Loire at its broadest point-there was nothing but a faint nostalgia colored with contempt. All that was such a long time ago, after all. The fat man at the door was a stranger.
At first they were clever. They asked for nothing. They were concerned for me living alone, gave me presents-a food processor, shocked that I didn’t already have one, a winter coat, a radio-offered to take me out… Even invited me to their restaurant once, a big barn of a place with gingham-print faux-marble tables and neon signs and dried starfish and brightly colored plastic crabs wreathed in fisherman’s netting on the walls. I commented, rather diffidently, on the d'ecor.
“Well, Mamie, it’s what you’d call kitsch,” explained Laure kindly, patting my hand. “I don’t suppose you’re interested in things like that, but believe me, in Paris, this is very fashionable.” She leveled her teeth at me. She has very white, very large teeth, and her hair is the color of fresh paprika. She and Yannick often touch and kiss each other in public. I have to say it all rather embarrassed me. The meal was…modern, I suppose. I’m no judge of such things. Some kind of salad in a bland dressing, lots of little vegetables cut to look like flowers. Might have been some endive in there, but mostly just plain old lettuce leaves and radishes and carrots in fancy shapes. Then a piece of hake (a nice piece, I have to say, but very small) with a white wine shallot sauce and a piece of mint on top-don’t ask me why. Then a sliver of pear tartlet fussed over with chocolate sauce, dusted sugar, chocolate curls. Looking furtively at the menu, I noticed a great deal of self-congratulatory stuff along the line of “a nougatine of assorted candies on a mouthwatering bed of wafer-thin pastry, bound with thick dark chocolate and served with a tangy apricot coulis.” Sounded like a plain old florentine to me, and when I saw it, it looked no bigger than a five-franc piece. You’d have thought Moses brought it down from the mountain, to read what they’d put about it. And the prices! Five times the price of my most expensive menu, and that was without the wine. Course, I didn’t pay for any of it. But I was beginning to think that all the same, there might be a hidden price in all this sudden attention.
Two months later came the first proposal. A thousand francs to me if I would give them my recipe for pa"ella antillaise and allow them to put it on their menu. Mamie Framboise’s pa"ella antillaise, as mentioned in H^ote & Cuisine (July 1992) by Jules Lemarchand. At first I thought it was a joke. A delicate blend of freshly caught seafood subtly melded with green bananas, pineapple, muscatels and saffron rice… I laughed. Didn’t they have enough recipes of their own?
“Don’t laugh, Mamie.” Yannick was almost curt, his bright black eyes very close to mine. “I mean, Laure and I would be so grateful…” He gave a wide, open smile.
“Now don’t be coy, Mamie.” I wished they wouldn’t call me that. Laure put her cool bare arm around me. “I’d make sure everyone knew it was your recipe.”
I relented. I don’t actually mind giving out my recipes; after all, I’ve given enough out already to people in Les Laveuses. I’d give them the pa"ella antillaise for nothing, plus anything else they took a shine to, but on condition that they left Mamie Framboise off the menu. I’d had one narrow escape. I wasn’t going to court more attention.
They agreed so quickly to my demands and with so little argument. And three weeks later the recipe for Mamie Framboise’s pa"ella antillaise appeared in H^ote & Cuisine, flanked by a gushing article by Laure Dessanges. “I hope to be able to bring you more of Mamie Framboise’s country recipes soon,” she promised. “Till then, you can taste them for yourself at Aux D'elices Dessanges, Rue des Romarins, Angers.”
I suppose they never imagined that I would actually read the article. Perhaps they thought that I hadn’t meant what I’d told them. When I spoke to them about it they were apologetic, like children caught out in some endearing prank. The dish was already proving extremely successful, and there were plans for an entire Mamie Framboise section of the menu, including my couscous `a la provencale, my cassoulet trois haricots and Mamie’s Famous Pancakes.
“You see, Mamie,” explained Yannick winningly. “The beauty of it is that we’re not even expecting you to do anything. Just to be yourself. To be natural.”
“I could run a column in the magazine,” added Laure. “”Mamie Framboise Advises,“ something like that. Of course, you wouldn’t need to write it. I’d do all that.” She beamed at me, as if I were some child who needed reassurance.
They’d brought Cassis with them again, and he too was beaming, though he looked confused, as if this was all a little too much for him.
“But I told you.” I kept my voice level, hard, to keep it from trembling. “I told you before. I don’t want any of this. I don’t want to be a part of it.”
Cassis looked at me, bewildered. “But it’s such a good chance for my son,” he pleaded. “Think what the publicity might do for him.”
Yannick coughed. “What my father means,” he amended hastily, “is that we could all benefit from the situation. The possibilities are endless if the thing catches on. We could market Mamie Framboise jams, Mamie Framboise biscuits… Of course, Mamie, you’d have a substantial percentage…”
I shook my head. “You’re not listening,” I said in a louder voice. “I don’t want publicity. I don’t want a percentage. I’m not interested.”
Yannick and Laure exchanged glances.
“And if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking,” I said sharply, “that you might just as easily do it without my consent-after all, a name and a photograph’s all you really need-then listen to this. If I hear of one more so-called Mamie Framboise recipe appearing in that magazine-in any magazine-then I’ll be on the phone to the editor of that magazine that very day. I’ll sell him the rights to every recipe I’ve got. Hell, I’ll give them to him for free.”
I was out of breath, my heart hammering with rage and fear. But no one railroads Mirabelle Dartigen’s daughter. They knew I meant what I said too. I could see it in their faces.
Helplessly, they protested: “Mamie-”
“And stop calling me Mamie!”
“Let me talk to her.” That was Cassis, rising with difficulty from his chair. I noticed that age had shrunk him; had softly sunk him into himself, like a failed souffl'e. Even that small effort caused him to wheeze painfully.
“In the garden.”
Sitting on a fallen tree trunk beside the disused well I felt an odd sense of doubling, as if the old Cassis might pull aside the fat-man’s mask from his face and reappear as before, intense, reckless and wild.
“Why are you doing this, Boise?” he demanded. “Is it because of me?
I shook my head slowly. “This has nothing to do with you,” I told him. “Or Yannick.” I jerked my head at the farmhouse. “You notice I managed to get the old farm fixed up.”
He shrugged. “Never saw why you’d want to, myself,” he said. “I wouldn’t touch the place. Gives me the shivers just to think of you living here.” Then he gave me a strange look, knowing, almost sharp.
“But it’s very like you to do it.” He smiled. “You always were her favorite, Boise. You even look like her nowadays.”
I shrugged. “You won’t talk me round,” I said flatly.
“Now you’re beginning to sound like her too.” His voice, complex with love, guilt, hate. “ Boise…”
I looked at him. “Someone had to remember her,” I told him. “And I knew it wasn’t going to be you.”
He made a helpless gesture. “But here, in Les Laveuses…”
“No one knows who I am,” I said. “No one makes the connection.” I grinned suddenly. “You know, Cassis, to most people, all old ladies look pretty much the same.”
He nodded. “And you think Mamie Framboise would change that.”
“I know it would.”
“You always were a good liar,” he observed casually. “That’s another thing you got from her. The capacity to hide. Me, I’m wide open.” He flung his arms wide to illustrate.
“Good for you,” I said indifferently. He even believed it himself.
“You’re a good cook, I’ll give you that.” He stared over my shoulder at the orchard, the trees heavy with ripening fruit. “She’d have liked that. To know you’d kept things going. You’re so like her…” he repeated slowly, not a compliment but a statement of fact, some distaste, some awe.
“She left me her book,” I told him. “The one with the recipes in it. The album.”
His eyes widened. “She did? Well, you were her favorite.”
“I don’t know why you keep saying that,” I said impatiently. “If ever Mother had a favorite it was Reinette, not me. You remember-”
“She told me herself,” he explained. “Said that of the three of us you were the only one with any sense or any guts. There’s more of me in that sly little bitch than the pair of you ten times over. That’s what she said.”
It sounded like her. Her voice in his, clear and sharp as glass. She must have been angry with him, in one of her rages. It was rare that she struck any of us, but God!…her tongue.
Cassis grimaced. “It was the way she said it too,” he told me softly. “So cold and dry. With that curious look in her eyes, as if it was a kind of test. As if she was waiting to see what I’d do next.”
“And what did you do?”
He shrugged. “I cried, of course. I was only nine.”
Of course he would, I told myself. That was always his way. Too sensitive beneath his wildness. He used to run away from home regularly, sleeping out in the woods or in the tree house, knowing that Mother would not whip him. Secretly she encouraged his misbehavior, because it looked like defiance. It looked like strength. Me, I’d have spat in her face.
“Tell me, Cassis”-the idea came to me in a rush and I was suddenly almost out of breath with excitement-“Did Mother-do you ever remember if she spoke Italian? Or Portuguese? Some foreign language…”
Cassis looked puzzled, shook his head.
“Are you sure? In her album-” I explained about the pages of foreign writing, the secret pages I had never learned to decipher.
“Let me see.”
We looked over it together, Cassis fingering the stiff yellow leaves with reluctant fascination. I noticed he avoided touching the writing, though he often fingered the other things, the photographs, the pressed flowers, butterflies’ wings, pieces of cloth stuck to the pages.
“My God,” he said in a low voice. “I never had any idea she’d made something like this.” He looked up at me. “And you say you weren’t her favorite.”
At first he seemed more interested in the recipes than anything else. Flicking through the album, his fingers seemed to have retained some of their old deftness.
“Tarte mirabelle aux amandes,” he whispered. “Tourteau fromage Clafoutis aux cerises rouges. I remember these!” His enthusiasm was suddenly very young, very like the old Cassis. “Everything’s here,” he said softly. “Everything.”
I pointed at one of the foreign passages.
Cassis studied it for a moment or two, and then began to laugh. “That’s not Italian,” he told me. “Don’t you remember what this is?” He seemed to find the whole thing very funny, rocking and wheezing. Even his ears shook, big old-man’s ears like blue-cap mushrooms. “This is the language Dad invented. ”Bilini-enverlini,“ he used to call it. Don’t you remember? He used to speak it all the time…”
I tried to recall. I was seven when he died. There must be something left, I told myself. But there was so little. Everything swallowed up into a great hungry throat of darkness. I can remember my father, but only in snatches. A smell of moths and tobacco from his big old coat. The Jerusalem artichokes he alone liked, and which we all had to eat once a week. How I’d once accidentally sunk a fishhook through the webby part of my hand between finger and thumb, and his arms around me, his voice telling me to be brave… I remember his face through photographs, all in sepia. And at the back of my mind, something-a remote something-disgorged by the darkness. Father jabbering to us in nonsense talk, grinning, Cassis laughing, myself laughing without really understanding the joke and Mother, for once, far away, safely out of earshot, one of her headaches perhaps, an unexpected holiday…
“I remember something,” I said at last.
He explained then, patiently. A language of inverted syllables, reversed words, nonsense prefixes and suffixes. Ini tnawini inoti plainexini. I want to explain. Minini toni nierus niohwni inoti. I’m not sure who to.
Strangely enough Cassis seemed uninterested by my mother’s secret writings. His gaze lingered over the recipes. The rest was dead. The recipes were something he could understand, touch, taste. I could feel his discomfort at standing too close to me, as if my similarity to her might infect him too.
“If my son could only see all these recipes-” he said in a low voice.
“Don’t tell him,” I said sharply. I was beginning to know Yannick. The less he learned about us, the better.
Cassis shrugged. “Of course not. I promise.”
And I believed him. It goes to show that I’m not as like my mother as he thought. I trusted him, God help me, and for a while it seemed as if he’d kept his promise. Yannick and Laure kept their distance, Mamie Framboise vanished from view and summer rolled into autumn, dragging a soft train of dead leaves.