Apple and dried-apricot clafoutis. Beat the eggs and flour together with the sugar and melted butter until the consistency is thick and creamy. Add the milk little by little, beating all the time. The final consistency should be a thin batter. Rub a dish generously with butter, and add the sliced fruit to the batter. Add cinnamon and allspice and put into the oven at a medium temperature. When the cake has begun to rise, add brown sugar to the top and dot with butter. Bake until the top is crisp and firm to the touch.
It had been a meager harvest. The drought, followed by the disastrous rains, had seen to that. And yet the annual harvest festival was something we usually looked forward to with anticipation, even Mother, who made her special cakes and left bowls of fruit and vegetables on the window ledge and baked loaves of extravagant and intricate loveliness-a wheat sheaf, a fish, a basket of apples-to sell at the Angers market.
The fair was always held at the end of October, and that day all the Sunday-schoolers would file around the fountain (paganly decorated with flowers, fruit and wreaths of corn, pumpkins and colored squash hollowed and cut into lantern shapes) dressed in their best clothes, holding candles and singing. The service would continue in the church, where the altar was draped in green and gold, and the hymns, resounding across the square where we would listen, fascinated by the lure of things forbidden, dealt with the reaping of the chosen and the burning of the chaff. We always waited until the service was over, and then would join in the festivities with the rest while the cur'e remained to take confession in church and the harvest bonfires burnt smoky-sweet at the corners of the bare fields.
It was then that the fair would begin. The harvest festival with wrestling and racing and all kinds of competitions-dancing, ducking for apples, pancake eating, goose racing-and hot gingerbread and cider given out to the winners and losers, and baskets of homemade produce sold at the fountain while the harvest queen sat smiling on her yellow throne and showered passersby with flowers.
This year we had hardly seen it coming. Most other years we would have awaited the celebration with an impatience greater than Christmas, for presents were scarce in those days and December is a poor time for celebration. October, fleeting and sappy sweet with its reddish gold light and early white frosts and the leaves turning brilliantly, is a different matter, a magical time, a last gleeful defiance in the face of the approaching cold. Other years we would have had the pile of wood and dead leaves waiting in a sheltered spot weeks in advance, the necklaces of crab apples and bags of nuts waiting, our best clothes ironed and ready and our shoes polished for dancing. There might have been a special celebration at the Lookout Post (wreaths hung on the Treasure Stone and scarlet flower heads dropped into the slow brown Loire), pears and apples sliced and dried in the oven, garlands of yellow corn plaited and worked into braids and dollies for good luck around the house, tricks planned against the unsuspecting and bellies rumbling in hungry anticipation.
But this year there was little of that. The sourness after La Mauvaise R'eputation had begun our descent, and with it the letters, the rumors, graffiti on the walls, whispering behind our backs and polite silences to our faces. It was assumed that there could be no smoke without fire. The accusations (NAZI WHOAR on the side of the henhouse, the words reappearing larger and redder every time we painted them over), coupled with Mother’s refusal to acknowledge or deny the gossip, along with reports of her visits to La R'ep exaggerated and passed hungrily from mouth to mouth, were enough to whet suspicions even more keenly. Harvesttime was a sour affair for the Dartigen family that year.
The others built their bonfires and sheaved their wheat. Children picked over the rows to make sure none of the grain was lost. We gathered the last of the apples-what wasn’t rotten through with wasps, that is-and stored them away in the cellar on trays, each one separate so that rot couldn’t spread. We stored our vegetables in the root cellar in bins and under loose coverings of dry earth. Mother even baked some of her special bread, though there was little market for her baking in Les Laveuses, and sold it impassively in Angers. I remember how we took a cartload of loaves and cakes to market one day, how the sun shone on the burnished crusts-acorns, hedgehogs, little grimacing masks-like on polished oak. A few of the village children refused to speak to us. On the way to school one day someone threw clods of earth at Reinette and Cassis from a stand of tamarisks by the riverside. As the day approached, girls began to appraise one another, brushing their hair with especial care and washing their faces with oatmeal, for on festival day one of them would be chosen as the harvest queen and wear a barley crown and carry a pitcher of wine. I was totally uninterested in this. With my short straight hair and froggy face I was never going to be harvest queen. Besides, without Tomas nothing mattered very much. I wondered if I would ever see him again. I sat by the Loire with my traps and my fishing rod and watched. I couldn’t stop myself from believing that somehow, if I caught the pike, Tomas would return.