It was easier than we expected. Mother was having another of her bad spells and was too preoccupied with her own suffering to notice our pale faces and muddy eyes. She whisked Reine away to the bathroom immediately, claiming she could still smell the orange on her skin, and rubbed her hands with camphor and pumice until Reinette screamed and pleaded. They emerged twenty minutes later-Reine with her hair bound up in a towel and smelling strongly of camphor, my mother dull and hardmouthed with suppressed rage. There was no supper for us.
“Make it yourselves if you want any,” Mother advised us. “Running about the woods like gypsies. Flaunting yourselves in the square like that…” She almost moaned, one hand touching her temple in the old warning gesture. A silence, during which she stared as if we were strangers-then she retired to her rocking chair by the fireside and twisted her knitting savagely in her hands, rocking and glaring into the flames.
“Oranges,” she said in her low voice. “Why would you want to bring oranges into the house? Do you hate me so much?” But who she was talking to was unclear, and none of us dared answer her. I’m not sure what we would have said anyway.
At ten o’clock she went to her room. It was already late for us, but Mother, who often seemed to lose track of time during her bad spells, said nothing. We stayed in the kitchen for a while, listening to the sounds of her preparing for bed. Cassis went to the cellar for something to eat, returning with a piece of rillettes wrapped in paper and half a loaf of bread. We ate, though none of us were very hungry. I think perhaps we were trying to avoid talking to one another.
The act-the terrible act we had committed-still hung in front of us like a dreadful fruit. His body, his pale Northern skin almost bluish in the dapple of the leaves, his averted face, his sleepy, boneless roll into the water. Kicking leaves over the shattered mess at the back of his head-strange that the bullet hole should be so small and neat at the point of entry-then the slow, regal splash into the water… Black rage blotted out my grief. You cheated me, I thought. You cheated. You cheated me!
It was Cassis who broke the silence first. “You ought to…you know…do it now.”
I gave him a look of hate.
“You ought to,” he insisted. “Before it gets too late.”
Reine looked at us both with those appealing heifer’s eyes.
“All right,” I said tonelessly. “I’ll do it.”
Afterward I went back to the river once again. I don’t know what I expected to see there-the ghost of Tomas Leibniz, perhaps, leaning against the Lookout Post and smoking-but the place was oddly normal, without even the eerie quietness I might have expected in the wake of such a dreadful thing. Frogs croaked. Water splashed softly against the hollow of the bank. In the cool gray moonlight the dead pike stared at me with its ball-bearing eyes and its jagged, drooling mouth. I could not rid myself of the idea that it was not dead, that it could hear every word, that it was listening…
“I hate you,” I told it softly.
Old Mother stared at me in glassy contempt. There were fishhooks all around its mean toothy mouth, some almost healed over with time. They looked like strange fangs.
“I’d have let you go,” I told it. “You knew I would.” I lay in the grass beside it, our faces close to touching. The stench of rotting fish mingled with the dank smell of the ground. “You cheated me,” I said.
In the pale light the old pike’s eyes looked almost knowing. Almost triumphant.
I’m not sure how long I stayed out that night. I think I dozed a little, for when I awoke the moon was farther downriver, glancing its crescent off the smooth milky water. It was very cold. Rubbing the numbness from my hands and feet I sat up, then carefully picked up the dead pike. It was heavy, slimed with mud from the river, and there were the jagged remnants of fishhooks crusted into its gleaming flanks like pieces of carapace. In silence I took it to the Standing Stones, where I had nailed the corpses of water snakes all through that summer. I hooked the fish through its lower jaw onto one of the nails. The flesh was tough and elastic; for a moment I wasn’t sure the skin would break, but with an effort I managed. Old Mother hung openmouthed above the river in a snakeskin skirt, which trembled in the breeze.
“At least I got you,” I said softly.
At least I got you.