When my father died I felt little true grief. When I looked for sorrow I found only a hard place inside myself, like a stone in a fruit. I tried to tell myself that I would never see his face again, but by that time I had almost forgotten it as it was. Instead he had become a kind of icon, rolling eyes like a plaster saint’s, his uniform buttons gleaming mellowly. I tried to imagine him lying dead on the battlefield, lying broken in some mass grave, exploded by the mine that blew up in his face… I imagined horrors, but they were unreal to me as nightmares. Cassis took it worst. He ran away for two days after we got the news, finally returning exhausted, hungry and covered in mosquito bites. He’d been sleeping out on the other side of the Loire, where the woods tail off into marshland. I think he’d had some mad idea of joining the army, but had got lost instead, going round in circles for hours until he’d found the Loire again. He tried to bluff it out, to pretend he’d had adventures, but for once I didn’t believe him.
After that he took to fighting other boys, and often came home with torn clothes and blood under his fingernails. He spent hours in the woods alone. He never cried for Father, and took pride in that, even swearing at Philippe Hourias when he once tried to offer comfort. Reinette, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy the attention Father’s death brought her. People called round with presents, or patted her head if they met her in the village. In the caf'e the matter of our future-and our mother’s-was discussed in low, earnest voices. My sister learned to make her eyes brim at will, and cultivated a brave, orphaned smile that earned her gifts of sweets and the reputation of being the sensitive one in the family.
My mother never spoke of him after his death. It was as if Father had never lived with us at all. The farm went on without him, if anything with even greater efficiency than before. We dug up the rows of Jerusalem artichokes, which only he had liked, and replaced them with asparagus and purple broccoli, which swayed and whispered in the wind. I began to have bad dreams in which I was lying underground, rotting, overwhelmed by the stench of my own decay. I drowned in the Loire, feeling the ooze of the riverbed crawl over my dead flesh, and when I reached out for help I felt hundreds of other bodies there with me, rocking gently with the undercurrent, crammed shoulder to shoulder against one another, some whole, some in pieces, faceless, grinning brokenly from dislocated jaws and rolling dead eyes in garish welcome… I awoke from these dreams sweating and screaming, but Mother never came. Instead Cassis and Reine came to me, impatient and kind by turns. Sometimes they pinched and threatened me in low, exasperated voices. Sometimes they took me in their arms and rocked me back to sleep. Sometimes Cassis would tell stories and Reine-Claude and I would both listen, eyes wide in the moonlight; stories of giants and witches and man-eating roses and mountains and dragons masquerading as men… Oh, Cassis was a fine storyteller in those days, and though he was sometimes unkind and often made fun of my night terrors, it is the stories I remember most now, and his eyes shining.