Recipe for cr`eme de framboise liqueur.
I recognized them at once. For a while I thought it was just a bundle of leaves. Pulled it out with a pole to clear the water. Clean the raspberries and wipe off the bristles. Soak in warm water for half an hour. Then I saw it was a parcel of clothes tied together with a belt. I didn’t have to go into the pockets to know at once. Drain the water from the fruit and place in a large jar so as to cover the bottom. Thickly layer over with sugar. Repeat layers until jar is half full. At first I couldn’t think. I told the children I’d cleared the well and went to my room to lie down. I locked the well. I couldn’t think straight. Cover the fruit and sugar with Cognac, making sure not to disturb the layers, then fill with Cognac to top of jar. Leave for at least eighteen months.
The writing is neat and close-written in the strange hieroglyphics she uses when she wants her words to remain secret. I can almost hear her voice as she speaks, the slightly nasal intonation, the matter-of-factness of the terrible conclusion.
I must have done it. I’ve dreamed of violence so often and this time I must have really done it right. His clothes in the well. His name tags in the pocket. He must have come round again and I did it shot him stripped him and threw him into the river. I can almost remember it now but not quite, like a dream. So many things seem like dreams to me now. Can’t say I’m sorry. After what he did to me what he did what he let them do to Reine to me to the children to me.
The words are illegible at this point, as if terror has taken over the pen and sent it skating across the page in a desperate scrawl, but she takes control again almost immediately.
I have to think of the children. Can’t think it’s safe any more for them. He was using them all the time. All that time I thought it was me he wanted, but it was the children he was using. Keeping me sweet so he could use them some more. Those letters. Spiteful words, but that’s what it took to open my eyes. What were they doing at La R'ep? What else did he have planned for them after? Maybe it’s a good thing, what happened to R eine. It spoiled things for him, at least. Things finally got out of control. Someone died. That wasn’t in his plan. Those other Germans were never really a part of it. He was using them too. To take the blame, if that’s what it took. And now my children. I have to think of the children. Can’t think it’s safe any more for them. He was using them all the time. All that time I thought it was me he wanted, but it was the children he was using. Keeping me sweet so he could use them some more. Those letters. Spiteful words, but that’s what it took to open my eyes. What were they doing at LaR'ep? What else did he have planned for them after? Maybe it’s a good thing, what happened to Reine. It spoiled things for him, at least. Things finally got out of control. Someone died. That wasn’t in his plan. Those other Germans were never really a part of it. He was using them too. To take the blame, if that’s what it took. And now my children.
More of the mad scrawl.
I wish I could remember. What did he offer me this time for my silence? More pills? Did he really think I could sleep knowing what I’d paid for them? Or did he smile and touch my face in that special way as if nothing had changed between us? Was that what made me do it?
The words are legible but shaking, forced into control by a mighty effort of will.
There’s always a price. Not my children, though. Take someone else. Anyone. Take the whole village if you like. It’s what I think to myself when I see their faces in my dreams. That I did it for my children. I should send them to Juliette’s for a while. Finish up here and collect them when the war’s over. Safe there. Safe from me. Send them away my sweet Reine Cassis Boise most of all my little Boise what else can I do and when will it ever end?
She breaks off here-a neat recipe in red ink for rabbit casserole separates this from the final paragraph, which is written in a different color and a different style, as if she has thought about this at length.
It’s all arranged. I’ll send them to Juliette’s. They’ll be safe there. I’ll make up some tale to keep the gossipmongers happy. I can’t leave the farm like this, the trees need care over the winter. Bele Yolande still has signs of fungus, I’ll have to sort that out. Besides, they’ll be safer without me. I know that now.
I can’t begin to imagine what she must have felt. Fear, remorse, despair-and the terror that at last she was going insane, that the bad spells had opened a nightmare door from her dreams into the real world, threatening everything she loved… But her tenacity cut through it all. This stubbornness I inherited from her, the instinct to hold, to hold on to what was hers if it killed her.
No, I never realized what she was going through. I had my own nightmares. But even so I had begun to hear the rumors in the village, rumors that grew ever louder and more menacing and that Mother, as always, failed to deny or even to notice. The graffiti on the henhouse had begun a trickle of ill will and suspicion that now, after the executions at the church, began to flow more freely. People grieve in different ways, some silently, some in anger, some in spite. Rarely does grief bring out the best in people, despite what local historians like to tell you, and Les Laveuses was no exception. Chr'etien and Mirielle Dupr'e, shocked into brief silence at the death of their two boys, turned upon each other, she shrewish and vicious, he boorish, glaring at one another over the pews in church-she with a new bruise over one eye-with something close to hate. Old Gaudin turned in upon himself like a turtle getting ready for hibernation. Isabelle Ramondin, always a spiteful tongue at the best of times, became milky and false, looking at folk from her huge blue-black eyes, her soft chin trembling tearily. I suspect maybe she started it. Or maybe it was Claude Petit, who had never had much of a good word to say for his sister while she was alive, but who now seemed the picture of fraternal grief. Or Martin Truriand, who would inherit all his father’s business now that his brother was dead… Seems like death always brings out the rats from the woodwork in any place, and in Les Laveuses the rats were envy and hypocrisy and false piety and greed. Within three days it seemed that everyone was looking askance at everyone else, people gathered in twos and threes to talk in whispers and fell silent as you approached, people broke into unexplained tears one minute and knocked out their friends’ teeth the next, and little by little even I realized that the hushed conversations, the sideways glances, the muttered imprecations all happened most often when we were around, when we went to the post office to collect the mail or to the Hourias farm to fetch milk or to the hardware shop for a box of masonry nails. Every time, the same looks. The same whispers. Once, it was a stone flung at my mother from behind a milking shed. Another time, clods of earth thrown at our door after curfew. Women turned away without greeting us. More graffiti, this time on our walls:
NAZI WHORE, one read. Another, on the side of the goat shack, read, OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS DIED FOR YOU.
But Mother treated it all with indifferent contempt. She bought her milk from Cr'ecy when the Hourias farm ran dry and posted her letters in Angers. No one spoke directly to her, but when Francine Crespin spat at her feet one Sunday morning on the way back from church Mother spat back, right in Francine’s face, with remarkable speed and accuracy.
As for us, we were ignored. Paul still spoke to us occasionally, though not when anyone else was there to see. Adults seemed not to notice us, but from time to time someone like crazy Denise Lelac might give us an apple or a piece of cake to stuff in our pockets, murmuring in her cracked old voice, “Take it, take it, for God’s sake, it’s a pity you children should be caught up in such a business,” before hurrying on her way, her black skirts dragging in the sour yellow dust and her shopping basket clutched tightly in her bony fingers.
By the next day everyone was saying that Mirabelle Dartigen had been the Germans’ whore, and that was why her family had been spared retribution. By Tuesday some people had recalled that our father had once expressed sympathy for the Germans. On Wednesday night a group of drunks- La Mauvaise R'eputation, had never reopened, and people grow bitter and violent drinking alone-came to yell abuse at our closed shutters and to throw stones. We stayed in our bedroom with the light off, trembling and listening to the half-familiar voices, until Mother went out to break it up. That night they went quietly. The following night they left noisily. Then came Friday.
It was just after supper. It had been gray and dank all day, as if an old blanket had been thrown across the sky, and people were hot and prickly. Night brought little comfort, rolling a whitish mist across the fields so that our farmhouse seemed an island, mist seeping damply under doors and around window frames. We had eaten in silence as had become usual, and with little appetite, though I remember Mother had made an effort to make what we liked best. Bread freshly baked and scattered with poppy seeds, fresh butter from Cr'ecy, rillettes, slices of andouillette from last year’s pig, hot sizzling pieces of boudin in its grease, and black buckwheat pancakes toasted in the pan, as crispy and fragrant as autumn leaves on the plate. Mother, trying hard to be cheerful, served us sweet cider from earthen bol'ees but took none for herself. I remember she smiled constantly and painfully throughout the meal, sometimes giving a sharp bark of false laughter, though none of us said anything funny.
“I’ve been thinking.” Her voice was bright and metallic. “Thinking we may need a change of air.” We looked indifferently at her. The smell of grease and cider was overpowering.
“I was thinking of going to visit Tante Juliette in Pierre-Buffi`ere,” she continued. “You’d like it there. It’s in the mountains, on the Limousin. There are goats and marmots and-”
“There are goats here,” I said in a flat voice.
Mother gave another of those brittle, unhappy laughs. “I should have known you’d have some objection,” she said.
I met her eyes with mine. “You want us to run away,” I said.
For a minute she pretended not to understand.
“I know it sounds like a long way to go,” she said with that forced cheeriness. “But it’s really not that far, and Tante Juliette will be so pleased to see us all-”
“You want us to run away because of what people are saying,” I said. “That you’re a Nazi whore.”
Mother flushed. “You shouldn’t listen to gossip,” she said in a sharp voice. “Nothing good ever comes of it.”
“Oh, so it isn’t true, then, is it?” I asked simply to embarrass her. I knew it wasn’t-couldn’t imagine it to be true. I’d seen whores before. Whores were pink and plump, soft and pretty, with wide, vapid eyes and painted mouths like Reinette’s cinema actresses. Whores laughed and squealed and wore high-heeled shoes and carried leather handbags. Mother was old, ugly, sour. Even when she laughed, it was ugly.
“Of course not.” Her eyes did not meet mine.
Insistently: “So why are we running away?”
Silence. And in the sudden silence we heard the first harsh murmur of voices outside, and in it the clanking of metal and kicking of feet, even before the first stone hit the shutters. The sound of Les Laveuses in all its petty spite and vengeful anger, people no longer people now-no Gaudins or Lecozes or Truriands or Duponts or Ramondins-but members of an army. Peering out of the window we saw them gathered outside our gate, twenty, thirty or more of them, mostly men but some women too, some with lamps or torches like a late harvest-procession, some with pocketfuls of stones. As we watched and light from our kitchen spilled out across into the yard, someone turned to the window and threw another stone, which cracked the old wooden frame and sprayed glass into the room. It was Guilherm Ramondin. I could hardly see his face in the flickering reddish light of the torches, but I could feel the weight of his hate even through the glass.
“Bitch!” His voice was hardly recognizable, thickened with something more than drink. “Come out, bitch, before we decide to come in there and get you!” A kind of roar accompanied his words, punctuated by stamping, cheering and a volley of fistfuls of gravel and clods that spattered against our half-closed shutters.
Mother half-opened the broken window and shouted out. “Go home, Guilherm, you fool, before you pass out and someone has to carry you!” Laughter and jeering from the crowd. Guilherm shook the crutch on which he had been leaning.
“Brave talk for a German bitch!” he yelled. His voice sounded rough and beery, though his words were barely slurred. “Who told them about Rapha"el, eh? Who told them about La R'ep? Was it you, Mirabelle? Did you tell the S.S. that they killed your lover?”
Mother spat out of the window at them. “Brave talk!” Her voice was shrill and high. “You’re one to be talking bravery, Guilherm Ramondin! Brave enough to be standing drunk outside an honest woman’s house, frightening her kids! Brave enough to get sent home in the first week of battle while my husband got killed!”
At this Guilherm gave a roar of fury. Behind him the crowd joined in hoarsely. Another volley of stones and earth hit the window, sending pieces of earth spattering across the kitchen floor.
“You bitch!” They were through the gate now, pushing it up and off its rotten hinges with ease. A dog barked once, twice, then fell quiet with a sudden yelp. “Don’t think we don’t know! Don’t think Rapha"el didn’t tell anyone!” His triumphant, hateful voice rang out even above the rest. In the red darkness below the window I could see his eyes as they reflected the firelight like a crazywork of broken glass. “We know you were trading with them, Mirabelle! We know Leibniz was your lover!” From the window Mother hurled a jug of water onto the nearest members of the crowd.
“Cool you off!” she screamed furiously. “You think that’s all people can think about? You think we’re all at your level?”
But Guilherm was already through the gate and pounding on the door, undeterred. “Get out here, bitch! We know what you’ve been doing!”
I could see the door trembling on its latch beneath the pressure of his blows. Mother turned to us, her face blazing with rage.
“Get your things! Get the cash box from under the sink. Get our papers!”
“Get them, I tell you!”
At first I thought the crash-a terrible sound that shook the rotten floorboards-was the sound of the door coming down. But when we returned to the kitchen we saw that Mother had pulled the dresser across the door, breaking many of her precious plates in the process, and was using it to barricade the entrance. The table, too, had been dragged toward the door, so that even if the dresser gave way no one could enter. She was holding my father’s shotgun in one hand.
“Cassis, check the back door. I don’t think they’ve thought of that yet, but you never know. Reine-stay with me. Boise-” she looked at me strangely for a moment, her eyes black and bright and unreadable, but was unable to finish her sentence, for at that moment a terrible weight crashed against the door, splintering the top half right out of the frame, exposing a slice of night sky. Faces reddened by fire and fury appeared in the frame, boosted up onto the shoulders of their comrades. One of the faces belonged to Guilherm Ramondin. His smile was ferocious.
“Can’t hide in your little house,” he gasped. “Coming to get you…bitch. Coming to pay you back for what…you did…to-”
Even then, with the house coming down about her, my mother managed a sour laugh.
“Your father?” she said in a high, scornful voice. “Your father, the martyr? Francois? The hero? Don’t make me laugh!” She raised the shotgun so that he could see it. “Your father was a pathetic old drunkard who’d piss on his shoes more often than not when he wasn’t sober. Your father-”
“My father was Resistance!” Guilherm’s voice was shrieky with rage. “Why else would he go to Rapha"el’s? Why else would the Germans take him?”
Mother laughed again. “Oh, Resistance, was he?” she said. “And old Lecoz, I suppose he was Resistance as well, was he? And poor Agn`es? And Colette?” For the first time that night, Guilherm faltered. Mother took a step toward the broken door, shotgun leveled.
“I’ll tell you this for nothing, Ramondin,” she said. “Your father was no more Resistance than I’m Joan of Arc. He was a sad old sot, that was all, who liked to talk too much and who couldn’t have got it up if he’d stuck a wire through it first! He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, just like the rest of you idiots out there! Now get yourselves home! All of you!” She fired a single shot into the air. “All of you!” she yelled.
But Guilherm was stubborn. He winced when the shards of pulverized wood grazed his cheek, but did not drop down.
“Someone killed that Boche,” he said in a more sober voice.
“Someone executed him. Who else but Resistance? And then someone tipped them off to the S. S. Someone from the village. Who else but you, Mirabelle? Who else?”
My mother began to laugh. In the firelight I could see her face, flushed and almost beautiful in her rage. Around her, the ruins of her kitchen lay in pieces and shards. Her laughter was terrible.
“You want to know, Guilherm?” There was a new note in her voice, a note almost of joy. “You really won’t go home until you know?” She fired the gun again into the ceiling, making plaster fall like bloody feathers in the firelight. “You really want to fucking know?”
I saw him flinch at the word more than at the blast from the shotgun. It was all right for men to swear in those days, but for a woman to do so-a decent woman, at least-was almost unthinkable. I understood that in her own words she had condemned herself. But my mother didn’t seem to have finished.
“I’ll tell you the truth, shall I, Ramondin?” she said. Her voice was breaking with laughter, hysteria, I suppose, but in that moment I was sure she was enjoying herself. “I’ll just tell you how it really happened, shall I?” She nodded gaily. “I didn’t have to report anyone to the Germans, Ramondin! And do you know why? Because I killed Tomas Leibniz! I killed him! Don’t you believe me? I killed him!” She was dry-firing the shotgun, though both barrels were empty. Her capering shadow on the kitchen floor was red and black and giant. Her voice rose to a scream. “Does that make you feel better, Ramondin? I killed him! I was his whore all right, and I’m not sorry! I killed him and I’d kill him again if I had to! I’d kill him a thousand times! What d’you think of that? What do you fucking think of that?”
She was still screaming as the first torch hit the kitchen floor. That went out, though Reinette began to cry as soon as she saw the flames, but the second one caught the curtains, and the third the cracked ruin of the dresser. Guilherm’s face at the top of the door had vanished now, but I could hear him shouting orders outside. Another torch-a sheaf of straw much like those from which the harvest queen’s throne was made-came flying over the top of the dresser and landed smoldering in the center of the kitchen.
Mother was still screaming, out-of-control, “I killed him, you cowards! I killed him and I’m glad I did and I’ll kill you, every one of you, any one of you tries to mess with me and my children!”
Cassis tried to take her arm and she flung him back against the wall.
“The back door!” I called to him. “We’ll have to go out through the back!”
“What if they’re waiting?” whimpered Reine.
“What if!” I yelled impatiently. Outside, rumors and catcalls, like a fairground turned suddenly savage. I caught my mother by the arm. Cassis took the other. Together we dragged her, still raving and laughing, to the back of the house. Of course they were waiting. Their faces were red with firelight. Guilherm barred our way, flanked by Petit the butcher and Paul’s father, Jean-Marc, looking slightly embarrassed but grinning like a sickle. Too drunk, perhaps, or perhaps still too wary, building themselves up to the act of murder like children playing double-dare, they had already set fire to the henhouse and the goat shack. The stench of burning feathers married with the dank chill of the fog.
“You’re not going anywhere,” said Guilherm sourly. Behind us the house whispered and snickered as the flames took.
Mother reversed the butt of the old rifle and, with a gesture almost too quick to see, punched him in the chest with it. Guilherm went down. For a second there was a gap where he had been and I leaped through it, pushing under elbows and wriggling between an undergrowth of legs and sticks and pitchforks. Someone tried to grab me, but I was slick as an oiled eel, scrabbling away into the hot crowd. I felt myself pinned, suffocated between a sudden surge of bodies. I clawed my way to air and space, barely feeling the blows that fell upon me. I sprinted across the field into the darkness, taking cover behind a stand of raspberry canes. Somewhere far behind me I thought I could hear my mother’s voice, beyond fear now, enraged and screaming. She sounded like an animal defending her young.
The stink of smoke was getting stronger. In the front of the house something collapsed with a splintering crash, and I felt a soft buffet of heat reach me across the field. Someone-I think it was Reine-screamed thinly.
The crowd was a shapeless thing, all hate. Its shadow reached as far as the raspberry bushes and beyond. Behind it I was just in time to see the far gable of the house collapse in a spray of fireworks. A chimney of superheated air rose redly into the sky, sending spume and fire-crackers squawking into the gray sky like a geyser of flame.
A figure broke from the shapelessness of the crowd and ran across the field. I recognized Cassis. He made a dash for the corn, and I guessed he would make for the Lookout Post. A couple of people started to follow him, but the burning farm held many of them hypnotized. Besides, it was Mother they wanted. I could make out her words now over the twin throats of the crowd and the fire. She was calling our names.
“Cassis! Reine-Claude! Boise!”
I stood up behind the raspberry canes, ready to run if anyone came toward me. Standing on the tips of my toes I glimpsed her briefly. She looked like something in a fisherman’s tale, caught on all sides but thrashing furiously, her face red and black with fire and blood and smoke, a monster of the deep. Some other faces I could see too: Francine Crespin, her sheep-eyed saintly face distorted into a scream of hatred; Guilherm Ramondin like something back from the dead. There was fear in their hatred now, the kind of superstitious fear that can only be cured by destruction and murder. It had taken them a long time to get to it, but their killing time had come. I saw Reinette slink out from one side of the crowd into the corn. No one tried to stop her. By then most of them, blinded by blood lust, would have been hard put to recognize who she was, anyway.
Mother went down. I may have imagined a single hand rising above the grimacing faces. It was like something from one of Cassis’s books: Plague of Zombies or Valley of the Cannibals. All that was missing were the jungle drums. But the worst part of the horror was that I knew these faces, glimpsed mercifully briefly in the gleeful dark. That was Paul’s father. That was Jeannette Crespin, who’d almost been harvest queen, barely sixteen and with blood across her face. Even sheepy P`ere Froment was there-though whether he was trying to restore order or was himself contributing to the chaos was impossible to tell. Sticks and fists hammered onto my mother’s head and back, she holding herself tight like a curled fist, like a woman with a baby in her arms, still screaming defiance, though muffled now by the hot weight of flesh and hate.
Then came the shot.
We all heard it: the yark of a large-gauge weapon, a double-barreled shotgun perhaps, or one of the antique pistols still hoarded in farm attics or under floorboards in villages all over France. It was a wild shot-though Guilherm Ramondin felt it scorch his cheek and promptly voided his bladder in terror-and heads whipped round curiously to see from where it had come. No one knew. Beneath their suddenly frozen hands my mother began to crawl, bleeding now from a dozen places, her hair dragged out so that the scalp showed slick in patches, a sharp stick actually pushed through the back of her hand so that the fingers splayed out helplessly.
The sound of the fires-biblical, apocalyptic-was now the only sound. People waited, remembering perhaps the sound of the execution squad in front of Saint-Benedict’s, trembling before their own bloody intentions. A voice came (from the cornfield, perhaps, or from the burning house, or even the sky itself), a booming, authoritative man’s voice, impossible to ignore or to disobey.
My mother continued to crawl. Uneasily the crowd parted to let her through, like wheat before the wind.
“Leave them! Go home!”
The voice sounded a little familiar, people said later. There was an inflection they recognized, but could not quite identify.
Someone cried out hysterically, “It’s Philippe Hourias!”
But Philippe was dead. A shiver went through the people. My mother reached the open field, staggering defiantly to her feet. Someone reached out to stop her, then thought better of it. P`ere Froment bleated something weak and well-meaning. A couple of angry cries faltered and died in the superstitious silence. Warily, insolently, without turning my face away from their collective gaze, I began to make my way toward my mother. I could feel my face burning with the heat, my eyes full of reflected firelight. I took her good hand.
The wide dark expanse of Hourias’s cornfield lay before us. We plunged into it without a word. No one followed us.