I had seen little of Paul that summer; with Cassis and Reinette out of school he had kept his distance. But by September the new term was close to starting, and Paul began to come round more often. Though I liked Paul well enough, I felt uneasy about him meeting Tomas, so I often avoided him, hiding in the bushes at the side of the river until he’d gone, ignoring his calls or pretending not to notice when he waved at me. After a while he seemed to get the message, because he stopped coming altogether.
It was at this point that Mother began to grow really strange. Since the incident with Reinette we had watched her with the wary caution of primitives at the feet of their god-and indeed, she was a kind of idol to us, a thing of arbitrary favors and punishments, and her smiles and frowns were the vane upon which our emotional weather turned. Now with September on the turn and school starting for the two eldest in a week’s time, she became almost a parody of her former self, enraged at the slightest tiny thing-a dishcloth left beside the sink, a plate on the draining board, a speck of dust on the glass of a framed photograph. Her headaches plagued her almost daily. I almost envied Cassis and Reinette, spending long days in school, but our own primary school had closed since the teacher had moved to Paris, and I would not be old enough to join them in Angers until the following year.
I used the orange bag often. Although terrified that my mother might discover the trick, I still couldn’t stop myself. Only when she took her pills was she quiet, and she only took them when she smelled oranges. I hid my supply of orange peel deep in the anchovy barrel and brought it out when necessary. It was risky, but it often brought me five or six hours of much needed peace.
Between these brief moments of amnesty the campaign between us continued. I was growing fast; already I was as tall as Cassis, taller than Reinette. I had my mother’s sharp face, her dark, suspicious eyes, her straight black hair. I resented this similarity more than her strangeness, and as summer festered into autumn I felt my resentment grow until I felt almost stifled with it. There was a piece of mirror in our bedroom, and I found myself looking into it in secret. I’d never taken a great deal of interest in my appearance before, but now I became curious, then critical. I counted my shortcomings and was dismayed to find so many. I would have liked to have curly hair, like Reinette, and full, red lips. I sneaked the film postcards from beneath my sister’s mattress and learned each one by heart. Not with sighs and ecstasies, but with gritted-teeth desperation. I twisted my hair with rags to make it curl. Fiercely I pinched the pale brown buds of my breasts to make them grow. Nothing worked. I remained the image of my mother, sullen, inarticulate and clumsy. There were other strangenesses. I had vivid dreams from which I awoke gasping and sweating, though the nights were turning cold. My sense of smell was enhanced, so that on some days I could smell a burning hayrick right across Hourias’s fields with the wind in the opposite direction, or I knew when Paul had been eating smoked ham or what my mother was making in the kitchen before I even got into the orchard. For the first time I was aware of my own smell, my own salty, fishy, warm smell (which persisted even when I rubbed my skin with lemon balm and peppermint), the sharp oily scent of my hair. I had stomach cramps-I who was never sick-and headaches. I began to wonder if my mother’s strangeness was not something I had inherited, a terrible mad secret into which I was being drawn.
Then I awoke one morning to find blood on the bedsheet. Cassis and Reinette were getting ready to cycle to school and paid little attention to me. Instinctively I dragged the cover over the stained sheet and pulled on an old skirt and sweater before running down to the Loire to investigate my affliction. There was blood on my legs, and I washed it in the river. I tried to make a bandage for myself out of old handkerchiefs, but the injury was too deep, too complex for that. I felt as if I were being torn apart nerve by nerve.
It never occurred to me to tell my mother. I had never heard of menstruation-Mother was obsessively prim regarding bodily functions-and I assumed that I was badly hurt, maybe even dying. A careless fall somewhere in the woods, a poison mushroom, bleeding me from the inside out, perhaps even a poisonous thought. We did not go to church-my mother disliked what she called la curaille and sneered at the crowds on their way to Mass-and yet she had given us a strong awareness of sin. Badness will get out somehow, she would say; and we were full of badness to her, like wineskins bloated with a bitter vintage, always to be watched, tapped, every look and mutter indicative of the deeper, the instinctive badness that we hid.
I was the worst. I understood this. I saw it in my own eyes in the mirror, so like hers with their flat, animal insolence. You can call Death with a single bad thought, she used to say, and that summer all my thoughts had been bad. I believed her. Like a poisoned animal I hid, climbing up to the top of the Lookout Post and lying curled on the wooden floor of the tree house, waiting for death. My belly ached like a rotten tooth. When Death didn’t come I read one of Cassis’s comics for a while, then lay looking up at the bright canopy of leaves until I fell asleep.