The coffee’s still boiling on the stove. Its smell is bitterly nostalgic, a black burnt-leaf smell with a hint of smoke in the steam. I drink it very sweet, like a shock victim. I think I can begin to understand how my mother must have felt, the wildness, the freedom of throwing everything away.
Everyone has gone. The girl with her little tape recorders and her mountain of tapes. The photographer. Even Pistache has gone home, at my own insistence, though I can still almost feel her arms around me, and the last touch of her lips against my cheek. My good daughter, neglected for so long in favor of my bad one. But people change. At last I feel I can talk to you now, my wild Noisette, my sweet Pistache. Now I can hold you in my arms without that feeling of drowning in silt. Old Mother is dead at last, her curse ended. No disaster will strike if I dare to love you.
Noisette returned my call late last night. Her voice was tight and cautious, like mine; I pictured her leaning as I do, her narrow face suspicious, against the tiled surface of the bar. There is little warmth in her words, coming as they do across cold miles and wasted years, but occasionally, when she speaks of her child, I think I can hear something in her voice. Something like the beginning of softness. It makes me glad.
I will tell her in my own time, I think; little by little, drawing her in. I can afford to be patient; after all, I know the technique. In a way she needs this story more than anyone-certainly more than the public, gawking at old scandals-even more than Pistache. Pistache doesn’t bear grudges. She takes people as they are, honestly and with kindness. But Noisette needs this story-and her daughter, P^eche, needs it too-if the specter of Old Mother is not to raise its head again one day. Noisette has her own demons. I only hope I am no longer one of them.
The house feels oddly hollow now everyone has left, uninhabited. A draft skitters a few dead leaves across the tiles. And yet I don’t feel quite alone. Absurd, to imagine ghosts remaining in this old house. I’ve lived here so long and never felt a single shiver of a presence, and yet today I feel… Someone just behind the shadows, a quiet presence, discreet and almost humble, waiting…
My voice was sharper than I intended. “Who’s there? I said, who’s there?” It rang with a metallic sound against the bare walls, the tiled floor. He stepped out into the light and I was suddenly close to laughter, closer to tears at his presence.
“Smells like good coffee,” he said in his mild way.
“God, Paul. How do you manage to walk so quietly?”
“I thought you…I thought…”
“You think too much,” said Paul simply, moving toward the stove. His face looked yellow-gold in the dim lamplight, his droopy mustache giving him a doleful expression belied by the quick light in his eyes. I tried to think how much he’d overheard of my story. Sitting in the shadows like that, I’d quite forgotten he was there.
“Talk a lot too,” he said, not unkindly, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “Thought you’d be talking all week, the way you went at it.” He gave me a quick, sly grin.
“I needed them to understand,” I began stiffly. “And Pistache-”
“People understand more’n you give ‘em credit for.” He took a step toward me, put his hand against my face. He smelled of coffee and old tobacco. “Why did you hide yourself for so long? What good was it goin’ to do?”
“There were…things…I just couldn’t bear to tell,” I faltered. “Not to you, not to anyone. Things that I thought would bring the whole world crashing down around me. You don’t know…you’ve never done anything like-”
He laughed, a sweet uncomplicated sound. “Oh, Framboise! Is that what you think? That I don’t know what it’s like to keep a secret?” He took my dirty hand in both of his. “That I’m too stupid even to have a secret?”
“That’s not what I thought-” I began. But it was. God help me, it was.
“You think you can carry the whole world on your back,” said Paul. “Well, listen to this.” He was lapsing into dialect again, and in certain words I could hear a tremor of his childhood stutter. The combination made him sound very young. “Those anonymous letters-remember the letters, Boise? The ones with the bad spellings? And the writing on the walls?”
“Remember how she h-hid those letters when you came into the hall? Remember how you could tell she’d got one because of the look on her face, and the way she’d stamp about, looking scared-and angry-and h-hateful because she was scared and angry, and about how you hated her specially on those days, hated her so much you could have killed her yourself?”
“That was me,” said Paul simply. “I wrote ‘em, every one myself. Bet you didn’t even know I could write, did you, and a pretty poor job I made of it for all the work I put into writing ’em. To get my own back. Because she called me a cretin that day afront of you-and Cassis-and Reine-C-C-C-” He screwed up his face in sudden frustration, flushing furiously. “Afront of Reine-Claude,” he finished quietly.
Of course. Like all riddles, clear as starlight when you knew the answer. I remembered the look on his face whenever Reinette was around, the way he would flush and stammer and fall silent, even though when he was with me his voice was almost normal. I remembered the look of sharp and untinctured hatred in his eyes that day-Talk properly, you cretin!-and the eerie wail of grief and fury that trailed across the fields in his wake. I remembered the way he would sometimes look at Cassis’s comic books with a look of fierce concentration-Paul, who we all knew couldn’t read a word. I remembered a look of appraisal on his face as I gave out the pieces of orange; an odd feeling at the river of sometimes being watched-even that last time, that last day with Tomas…even then, God, even then.
“I never meant for it to go so far. I wanted her to be sorry. But I never meant for that other stuff to happen. It got out of my hands, though. Like those things do. Like a fish too big to reel in, that takes your line away with it. I tried to make amends, though. At the end. I did try.”
I stared at him.
“Good God, Paul.” Too amazed even to be angry, even assuming there was still a place left in me for anger. “It was you, wasn’t it? You with the shotgun, that night at the farm? You hiding in the field?”
Paul nodded. I couldn’t stop staring at him, seeing him, perhaps, for the first time.
“You knew? All this time, and you knew everything?”
He shrugged. “You all thought I was soft,” he said without bitterness. “Thought all that could be going on right under my nose and that I still wouldn’t notice…” He gave his slow, sad smile. “Suppose that’s it now, though. With you and me. Suppose it’s over.”
I tried to think clearly, but the facts refused to lock into place. For so many years I’d thought that Guilherm Ramondin had written those letters, or perhaps Rapha"el, or a member of one of the Families… And now to hear that all the time it was Paul, my own sweet, slow Paul, barely thirteen years old and open as the summer sky… Begun it and ended it too, with the hard, inevitable symmetry of seasons turning. When I finally spoke it was to say something entirely different, something that surprised us both.
“Did you love her so much, then?” My sister Reinette, with her high cheekbones and her glossy curls. My sister the harvest queen, lipsticked and crowned with barley, with a sheaf of wheat in one hand and an orange in the other. That’s how I’ll always remember her, you know. That clear, perfect picture in my mind. I felt an unexpected prick of jealousy close to my heart.
“The same way you loved him, perhaps,” said Paul calmly. “The way you loved Leibniz.”
The fools we were when we were children. The hurting, hopeful fools. I spent my life dreaming of Tomas, through my married days in Brittany, through my widowhood, dreaming of a man like Tomas with his careless laughter and his sharp river-colored eyes, the Tomas of my wish-you, Tomas, only you forever-Old Mother’s curse made terrible flesh.
“It took a little time, you know,” said Paul, “but I got over it. I let go. It’s like swimming against the current. It exhausts you. After a while, whoever you are, you just have to let go, and the river brings you home.”
“Home.” My voice sounded strange in my ears. His hands over mine felt rough and warm as an old dog’s pelt. I had the strangest picture of us both, standing there in the failing light like Hansel and Gretel, grown old and gray in the witch’s house, finally closing the gingerbread door behind them.
Just let go, and the river brings you home. It sounded so easy.
“We’ve waited a long time, Boise.”
I turned my face away. “Too long, perhaps.”
“I don’t think so.”
I took a deep breath. This was the moment. To explain that it was all over, that the lie between us was too old to erase, too big to climb over, that we were too old, for pity’s sake, that it was ridiculous, that it was impossible, that besides, besides-
He kissed me then, on the lips, not a shy old-man’s kiss but something else altogether, something that left me feeling shaken, indignant and strangely hopeful. His eyes shone as slowly he drew something out of his pocket, something that glowed red-yellow in the lamplight…
A string of crab apples.
I stared at him as he drew the necklace gently over my head. It lay against my breasts, the fruit glossy and round and shining.
“Harvest queen,” whispered Paul. “Framboise Dartigen. Only you.”
I could smell the good, tart scent of the little fruit against my warming skin.
“I’m too old,” I said shakily. “It’s too late.”
He kissed me again, on the temple, then at the corner of the mouth. Then from his pocket again he drew a plait of yellow straw, which he placed around my forehead like a crown.
“It’s never too late to come home,” he said, and pulled me gently, insistently toward him. “All you have to do…is stop moving away.”
Resistance is like swimming against the current, exhausting and pointless. I turned my face toward the curve of his shoulder as into a pillow. Around my neck the crab apples gave off a pungent, sappy scent, like the Octobers of our childhood.
We toasted our homecomings with sweet black coffee and croissants and green-tomato jam made to my mother’s recipe.