Harvest festival morning was cold and bright, with the dying-ember glow peculiar to October. Mother had stayed up the night before-out of a kind of stubbornness rather than a love of tradition-making gingerbread and black buckwheat pancakes and blackberry jam, which she placed in baskets and gave to us to take to the fair. I wasn’t planning on going. Instead, I milked the goat and finished my few Sunday chores, then began to make my way toward the river. I had just placed a particularly ingenious trap there, two crates and an oil drum tied together with chicken wire and baited with fish scraps right at the edge of the riverbank, and I was eager to test it out. I could smell cut-grass on the wind with the first of the autumn bonfires, and the scent was poignant, centuries old, a reminder of happier times. I felt old too, trudging through the cornfields to the Loire. I felt as if I’d already lived a long, long time.
Paul was waiting at the Standing Stones. He looked unsurprised to see me, glancing briefly at me from his fishing before returning to the cork floater on the water.
“Aren’t you going to the f-fair?” he asked.
I shook my head. I realized I hadn’t seen him once since Mother chased him from the house, and I felt a sudden pang of guilt at having so completely forgotten my old friend. Maybe that’s why I sat down next to him. Certainly it was not for the sake of companionship-my need for solitude was stifling me.
“Me n-neither.” He looked almost morose, almost sour-faced that morning, his eyes drawn together in a frown of concentration that was unsettlingly adult. “All those idiots getting d-drunk and d-dancing about. Who needs it?”
“Not me.” At my feet the brown eddies of the river were hypnotic. “I’m going to check all my traps, then I thought I’d try the big sandbank. Cassis says there are pike there sometimes.”
Paul gave me a cynical look. “Never g-get her,” he told me tersely.
He shrugged. “You j-just won’t, that’s all.”
We fished side by side for a time, as the sun warmed our backs slowly and the leaves fell yellow-red-black, one by one into the silky water. We heard the church bells ringing sweet and distant across the fields, signaling the end of Mass. The festival would begin within ten minutes.
“Are the others going?” Paul shifted a bloodworm from its warming place in his left cheek and speared it expertly onto the hook.
I shrugged. “Don’t care,” I said.
In the silence that followed I heard Paul’s stomach rumble loudly.
It was then that I heard it. Clear as memory on the Angers road, almost imperceptible at first, growing louder like the drone of a sleepy wasp, louder like the buzz of blood in the temples after a breathless run across the fields. The sound of a single motorbike.
A sudden burst of panic. Paul must not see him. If it was Tomas I must be alone-and my heart’s sick lurch of joy told me, told me with a clear rapturous certainty, it was Tomas.
“Perhaps we could just have a look in,” I said with fake indifference.
Paul made a noncommittal sound.
“There’ll be gingerbread,” I told him slyly. “And baked potatoes and roasted sweet corn…and pies…and sausage in the coals of the bonfire.”
I heard his stomach rumble a little louder.
“We could sneak in and help ourselves,” I suggested.
“Cassis and Reine will be there.”
At least I hoped they would. I was counting on their presence to enable me to make a quick getaway and back to Tomas. The thought of his closeness-the unbearable, hot joy that filled me at the thought of seeing him-was like baking stones under my feet.
“W-will she be there?” His voice was low with a hate that might in other circumstances have surprised me. I never imagined Paul to be the kind who bears grudges. “I mean your m-m-m-” He grimaced with the effort. “Your m-m-m-Your m-m-m-”
I shook my head. “Shouldn’t think so,” I interrupted, more sharply than I intended. “God, Paul, it drives me crazy when you do that.”
Paul shrugged indifferently. I could hear the sound of the motorbike clearly now, maybe a mile or two up the road. I clenched my fists so hard that my fingernails scarred my palms.
“I mean,” I said in a gentler tone. “I mean it doesn’t matter really. She just doesn’t understand, that’s all.”
“Will she b-be there?” insisted Paul.
I shook my head. “No,” I lied. “She said she’d be clearing out the goat shed this morning.”
Paul nodded. “All right,” he said mildly.