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The looking glass, p.3

The Looking Glass, page 3

 

The Looking Glass
 


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  One young man did manage to escape. He burst from the mermaid’s clutches and swam ashore; he fled dripping through the town and into his house. And when the mermaid followed him, hauling herself on her arms, with painful slowness, up the hill of stones and into the street, the young man came back with his friends and caught her in a net. He cut her throat with his knife. She jerked and thrashed, then died. The wide wound gushed red, the blood flowing over her as though it dressed her in a red vest. Still streaming blood, she was hung up in the church porch for all the world to see. And the next morning she had turned into a great coil of seaweed, shiny and sticky with salt and seawater. On days of rain this rubbery knot was wet and on fine days it was dry. Which is why people hereabouts still hang seaweed outside the back doors of their houses, to foretell the weather and to warn their sons to keep away from bewitchment.

  Did the mermaid have the secret nameless opening between her legs like ordinary women? That was what I wanted to know, but could not say so, since there wasn’t a word for it, and anyway it was filthy even to think about it let alone try to refer to it out loud. Did men fear mermaids because of drowning or because they couldn’t make love to them? Or both? The tale was baffling and did not tell. It kept its mouth shut, just like the mermaid, who could not talk. She had a mouth but could only use it for wordless singing or kissing.

  Stories like these were new to me. I’d never heard of such things, which made me a breathless audience. Madame Patin’s tales were far more alarming than the ones I’d told my listeners at the orphanage, because I was not in control of them. And an adult telling them, rather than a child, made them especially powerful. My stories had had murder and violence in them, certainly, but because I was their author I had been in charge of who did what to whom. I had hooked my listeners into my world and felt triumphant. This mermaid story frightened me, because I thought I knew what it meant, and also I didn’t know. My body seemed to know, in silence, but not in any words that ever came easily into my mouth. The mermaid could not speak and neither could I.

  The only stories I had heard about women in the past were the lives of saints told by the nuns. Carefully chosen tales about heroic struggles to be good, with angels helping, and God rewarding virtue in the end. These folk tales, here in the countryside, seemed to belong to a different order of things. Their narratives were harshly expressed. Their contents were cruel and bleak. They seemed to be outside morality altogether, for they invoked no familiar or recognisable world; they were set in wild landscapes of swamps and forests where wolves roamed looking for prey and huntsmen slaughtered one another and children got lost and starved in the snow. Cunning and malignity and doom were hidden under beauty. You were lulled by the enchanted land under the sea shot through with iridescence and jewel colours, where swimming was like flying, where you rode on the backs of herring and wore bracelets of coral, only to fall prey to enchantresses and witches and wicked queens who had funds of exalted and magical knowledge, who cursed people in hatred and ruined their lives.

  I couldn’t put into words how these figures troubled me. They weren’t like any women I had ever met yet they existed and were real. Their meanings were sealed under a skin of silence, as you seal pâté under fat. They were as mysterious as a foreign language I couldn’t comprehend or translate and yet they spoke to my bones.

  As a lonely child I had needed stories but now, I decided, I had done with them; childhood was past; I had a job and a home and no hunger for such rigmaroles any more. Another part of me was not so confident, not so sure, and wanted to stay safe for ever by the stove, in the warmth and the dim light, and not to have to get any older, not to have to grow up. The price of that, or perhaps its cause, was immersing myself in the stories, which so repelled and attracted me.

  Even though she did not believe in displaying pleasure too openly, Madame Patin smiled a flitting, triumphant smile at my shudders, for I could not resist her deep voice beginning: once upon a time, long, long ago. I always begged for just one more story. I wanted to hear every single tale she had to tell, to discover just one or two with happy endings. But all her stories were sad. She said they were the ones she had been told as a child. Stories about witches stealing black cockerels to sacrifice, about the Devil snatching miserly widows down to hell, about dead twin boys floating along the river in coffin-baskets, about women giving birth to imps and snakes, about changelings. She told me these stories on Sunday evenings, when we took time off from the usual round of work and did the mending by the fire. Sometimes while I brushed her hair she’d tell me a story. Sometimes we were knitting. It was the one time in the week when she talked to me at length. I believe she enjoyed it. She was proud of her stories; she held them out for me to inspect and I duly admired them even as I shivered.

  Sometimes she told me fragments of her own life too. How she was an only child, how she had met her husband at the fair in Yvetot, how they had borrowed the money to buy the house and open the bar with such high hopes.

  —You wouldn’t believe what a wreck this place was when we first saw it, she boasted; that’s why it was so cheap, but my husband fixed it up, all of it. Then he went back to being a fisherman.

  The stories went on, Sunday by Sunday, for three months, but in July they stopped. The oats and barley harvest was being got in, and Madame Patin now had a double amount of cooking to do every day, for she helped out the farmers’ wives with their twice-daily task of taking food and drink to the labourers in the fields. Additional seasonal workers had arrived to do the harvesting, and they too had to be fed. Madame Patin gave a hand with this not only to make an extra bit of money but because it was a way of meeting her neighbours from the farms and having a chat. She would go off with two loaded baskets, stay to help with the harvesting for a couple of hours or so, and then come home again. She liked doing this in the early evening, when she rarely had customers in the shop and had got everything done in the house.

  —You’re to guard the place, she said to me: I trust you. You’re the guardian of the house while I’m out.

  She left me minding the bar, now that she had decided I was competent and knew what I was about. On my first time alone I did what I had been wanting to do for weeks. I opened the door to her bedroom and peeped inside. Wallpaper flowered with pink roses, a picture of the Virgin above the big bed, a photograph, of a man I assumed must be her dead husband, on the table next to it. He had wavy hair and a beard.

  My curiosity satisfied, I got on with my new job. Summer visitors who had driven over from Etretat for the afternoon would drift in for a drink, and I would serve them. Walkers making along the cliff paths would drop down into the village and find a café and happily come in. I found myself serving food as well. People asked for something to eat and so I gave it to them.

  At first it happened by accident. A couple of tourists walked up the road from the beach, came in, and called through into the kitchen that they were hungry and could I cook them anything? I was washing up. I shouted back that I was coming; to wait just a minute. I heard them laughing, amused and impatient, as I dried my hands on my apron and hurried over to the hatch.

  She had dark eyes and hair, almost black. She was little, but she looked imperious as a queen in a fairy tale. He was more of a typical Norman, solid-fleshed and blue-eyed, with brown hair sticking out all over his head, and a moustache. She looked less happy than he but perhaps that was because her beauty made her seem more serious. He smiled like a boy. They were smartly dressed, she wearing a big flowered hat and carrying a flounced parasol and he twirling a straw boater in one hand. The boater looked brand new, as though he’d bought it specially to go out with her.

  I gawped at them and opened my mouth to say no. I was flustered by this new demand. But then I remembered there were plenty of boiled potatoes in cream sauce left over from what we had eaten at midday, and that surely Madame Patin would not be angry if I made us some money by selling it to customers who wanted it. I put the re-heated food on a tray, with some br
ead and ham on the side, and a jug of cider, and carried it through the hatch door. I was amazed at my nonchalance, but the couple accepted their meal as though it were the most natural thing in the world that a café should serve them with food. When my employer returned home that evening she nodded in approval.

  —Good girl, she said: I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before.

  With the business so expanded I was kept very active. Since I was now an adequate cook, I often made the midday déjeuners we ate ourselves and then also gave to people, and if we ran out of what we had eaten there was always some saucisson or terrine to serve them, or an omelette, with a bowl of salad from the garden. It was the sort of food city people expected from a country café, simple and rustic, and you could see them relishing what felt like the informality and spontaneity of it all. We fed the harvesters well, because they worked so hard, and then the tourists also benefited from any leftovers in that direction. To them a slice of potato galette, a glass of ice-cold cider, was a quaint luxury. They wouldn’t get that from their cooks in town. Oh my dear, they exclaimed happily to one another: isn’t this delightful! And then when I charged them so little they would often give me a large tip on top.

  —You’re coming on, Madame Patin remarked to me: you’re becoming quite a businesswoman.

  She and I remained technically employer and servant. She was my mistress. We both acknowledged that. She paid me my wages and could turn me out at any time if I slacked at my work or misbehaved. I knew she felt obliged to concern herself with my wellbeing, as part of her duty towards me. She checked that I changed my clothes regularly and put on a clean chemise and stockings when I should; she sent me down to run on the beach every day to get some fresh air; she provided me with plenty of good food; she made sure I got enough sleep. I worked very hard, but then, so did she, and so did everyone else in the village. Like all the other women in Blessetot she was responsible for cleaning and cooking, making and mending the clothes, growing the vegetables, raising the poultry, milking the cow, as well as keeping her shop and running her bar. She had done two people’s work. But now I had come she had someone to help her and share her work. She had begun to feel she could rely on me and I was proud of this. We had become a team, yoked together, tugging our plough side by side. I had some dignity in my own eyes now, because someone needed me and what I had to give.

  One morning in early August I was walking back from the beach with a basketful of crabs I had just bought from the fisherman unloading his catch, which we were going to cook and then serve in the bar. I swung my basket to and fro, enjoying the strong, fishy smell of crab, and the way that the fisherman knew me well by now and called me by name, and the fact that the damp salt wind was blowing off the sea and the clouds were scudding along overhead in the blue sky. I had a place in this world; my feet traced connections between the house and the beach, back and forth between them, or to the potager and back, or to the church. I might have made no friends of my own age, but nonetheless I was a part of the village; I belonged in it; people knew me and accepted me. The local boys left me alone because I was so odd and so skinny; they reserved their aggressive teasing for prettier girls; but their parents, when they saw me, greeted me as a matter of course, as though I’d always lived there. And when I entered the kitchen Madame Patin looked up from the mayonnaise she was whisking and nodded at me in her matter-of-fact way, with one of her quick small smiles.

  We stood at the table together, she whipping her glossy yellow streak of yolks and oil, I cracking open and cleaning the crabs. We often worked together like this, without speaking. It was a busy, goodhumoured silence, which she would break with some comment or other, swearing at an egg-thickened sauce if it threatened to curdle, or exclaiming at how much we still had to do, or instructing me on a better way to pull the beards off mussels or gut fish. She was often brusque, which somehow pleased me. I liked not needing special treatment. She never praised me much, certainly not regularly, and I didn’t mind, for I knew that this taking me for granted indicated that she considered me to be like herself, capable, competent. On the other hand, whenever I proved for the first time that I could do something well, whether it was making a bed properly with sheets mitred at the corners or planting out onions, then she would compliment me. She recognised the learning of a new skill, a job well done.

  The crab shins were flecked red and white, flaring with bristly hairs. I cracked them off one by one, tearing the muscly joints. I piled the meat, mixed with mayonnaise, back into the shell. Sunlight moved over our hands busy on the table. Suddenly I felt as though I were like the room, filled with light. It made me want to cry. It was happiness, flowing into me and filling me and spilling out of my eyes down my cheeks. I was floating like a cloud in the sky. I loved Madame Patin. I had never loved anyone before. This was what it must be like to have a mother, I thought, this loving her and being allowed to be near her; normal and real; the most ordinary thing in the world. Love was so precious, yet it was so strong. It lifted me up and made me want to do great things. It made me capable of enduring anything.

  Tears ran down the side of my nose and over my cheeks. They collected at the corner of my mouth where they tasted salt. I kept my head down and went on working, so that Madame Patin should not see me crying, but she noticed anyway.

  —What are you crying for? she enquired: you silly girl, crying never helped anything.

  She did not sound as irritated as the words she spoke. She would often do that, say something harsh then soften it with a smile. She felt obliged to utter the wise dictum, whatever it was, but her sympathy lurked underneath, and she would measure it out carefully if she thought you merited it, like putting a spoonful of eau-de-vie into coffee to give you courage on a cold morning. She waited while I found my handkerchief and blew my nose, and then she started talking, telling me some story or other to take my mind off what she supposed were my woes. I couldn’t find the words to tell her I had been crying from happiness. It went on moving up and down inside me, like the waves swelling and breaking on the beach. I contained it. I held it carefully, so that it should last and not leak away. Now that it had arrived I wanted to keep it safe. Happiness would be my fuel. It would keep me alive, like air, like water. Happiness came from loving and feeling loved. Love fed me; love dandled me; love made me want to run and fly. That was what I thought then, before Frédéric Montjean arrived to turn my life upside down and teach me how destructive love can also be.

  * * *

  By the end of the first week of August the oats and barley had all been got in, and the wheat harvest was in full swing. The weather held. People laboured in the fields under canopies of blue, day after day, until late into the night. Madame Patin came home from her trips to the fields with a sunburnt face. She wore a big white linen cap to cover her hair, like all the women did, with flaps hanging down to protect her forehead and neck, but the sun found its way under these and turned her skin brown. Her forearms were brown too, and the little V at the base of her throat.

  We were beginning to prepare for the village fête, which was always held on the second Saturday in August. Being a newcomer, I was interested to see how everything was done. At the same time, wanting to be more than an onlooker, to demonstrate that I felt part of village life, I was looking forward to joining in the celebrations. Small as the village was, these would be elaborate. High Mass midmorning would be followed, after everyone had eaten their feast-day lunch, by a procession, which, as far as I could understand, was a combination of a pilgrimage to a shrine to the Virgin in one of the fields and a walk beating the bounds of the parish. Later in the afternoon there would be a puppet show for the children, and then in the evening a big supper followed by a dance. The old people were put in charge of the preparations, with the younger children to help them, while everybody else continued to give a hand in the fields. Madame Patin and I were to organise the food: the casse-croûte of bread and ham taken around in baskets after the walk, when everyone reassembled i
n front of the church, and the roast-mutton feast at night. We were going to eat outside. Tables made of planks on trestles were put up next to the temporary dance floor, and barrels of cider set up alongside. People would bring their own benches and chairs, and their own knives and forks and plates.

  I decorated the bar the day before, because we expected a lot of thirsty customers to flock in after mass, and we wanted to create a festive atmosphere that would encourage good humour and, let’s be honest, the plentiful consumption of drink. I put a tumbler of white daisies and pink dahlias, picked from the flowerbed in our vegetable garden, on each table, and then climbed on a bench to drape blue paper streamers around the frame of the big mirror. When I stood back to check that the fluttering ribbons hung as they should I looked at my reflection at the same time.

  She was a thin, fair-haired girl who put out a finger and rubbed the glass. My double’s fingertip met mine. She gazed at me consideringly, pursing her mouth. It wasn’t vanity, exactly, more a sort of anxious query, that kept me there, closely regarding her. Would anyone ask me to dance? Did I want them to? I could not be sure. To me boys were strange creatures, foreign as mermen, and I did not know what to say to them. They hadn’t interested me much so far. I had been quite content with my life as it was. But seeing the wooden dais being built in the little square outside the church, for the dancing, had given me a sudden idea of a new form of pleasure, a different element in which I might sink or swim. I thought of the mermaid, who had no legs and therefore couldn’t walk let alone dance, hauling herself slowly and painfully up the beach. I shrugged at myself. I blew out my cheeks, huffed and puffed, to turn the worry into a joke. Then I polished off the cloud of mist my breath had made and turned away. I left behind me, in the swimmy depths of the mirror, that mermaid-girl intrigued by the possibility of dancing and flirting. I stepped out of the buoyant water, onto dry land. Madame Patin was calling for me, and I slipped happily back into my place at her side where by now I knew exactly what to do. Here I was certain of what needed to be accomplished.

 
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