Copyright © Frogspawn Limited 2001
© И. Тогоева, перевод на русский язык, 2022
© Издание на русском языке, оформление. ООО Издательство «Эксмо», 2022
When my mother died she left the farm to my brother, Cassis, the fortune in the wine cellar to my sister, Reine-Claude, and to me, the youngest, her album and a two-liter jar containing a single black Périgord truffle, large as a tennis ball, suspended in sunflower oil, that, when uncorked, still releases the rich dank perfume of the forest floor. A fairly unequal distribution of riches, but then Mother was a force of nature, bestowing her favors as she pleased, leaving no insight as to the workings of her peculiar logic.
And as Cassis always said, I was the favorite.
Not that she ever showed it when she was alive. For my mother there was never much time for indulgence, even if she’d been the type. Not with her husband killed in the war, and the farm to run alone. Far from being a comfort to her widowhood, we were a hindrance to her with our noisy games, our fights, our quarrels. If we fell ill she would care for us with reluctant tenderness, as if calculating the cost of our survival, and what love she showed took the most elementary forms: cooking pots to lick, jam pans to scrape, a handful of wild strawberries collected from the straggling border behind the vegetable patch and delivered without a smile in a twist of handkerchief. Cassis would be the man of the family. She showed even less softness toward him than to the rest of us. Reinette was already turning heads before she reached her teens, and my mother was vain enough to feel pride at the attention she received. But I was the extra mouth, no second son to expand the farm, certainly no beauty.
I was always the troublesome one, the discordant one, and after my father died I became sullen and defiant. Skinny and dark like my mother, with her long graceless hands and flat feet, her wide mouth, I must have reminded her too much of herself, for there was often a tightness at her mouth when she looked at me, a kind of stoic appraisal, of fatalism. As if she foresaw that it was I, not Cassis or Reine-Claude, who would carry her memory forward. As if she would have preferred a more fitting vessel.
Perhaps that was why she gave me the album, valueless then except for the thoughts and insights jotted in the margins alongside recipes and newspaper cuttings and herbal cures. Not a diary, precisely. There are almost no dates in the album, no precise order. Pages were inserted into it at random, loose leaves later bound together with small, obsessive stitches, some pages thin as onionskin, others cut from pieces of card trimmed to fit inside the battered leather cover. My mother marked the events of her life with recipes, dishes of her own invention or interpretations of old favorites. Food was her nostalgia, her celebration, its nurture and preparation the sole outlet for her creativity. The first page is given to my father’s death-the ribbon of his Légion d’Honneur pasted thickly to the paper beneath a blurry photograph and a neat recipe for black buckwheat pancakes-and carries a kind of gruesome humor. Under the picture my mother has penciled Remember-dig up Jerusalem artichokes. Ha! Ha! Ha! in red.
In other places she is more garrulous, but with many abbreviations and cryptic references. I recognize some of the incidents to which she refers. Others are twisted to suit the moment’s needs. Still others seem to be complete inventions, lies, impossibilities. In many places there are blocks of tiny script in a language I cannot understand. Ini tnawini inoti plainexini. Ini nacini inton inraebi inti ynani eromni. Sometimes a single word, scrawled across the top or side of the page seemingly at random. On one page, seesaw in blue ink, on another, wintergreen, rapscallion, ornament in orange crayon. On another, what might be a poem, though I never saw her open any book other than one of recipes. It reads:
like some bright fruit
plum peach apricot
It is a whimsical touch, which surprises and troubles me. That this stony and prosaic woman should in her secret moments harbor such thoughts. For she was sealed off from us-from everyone-with such fierceness that I had thought her incapable of yielding.
I never saw her cry. She rarely smiled, and then only in the kitchen with her palette of flavors at her fingertips, talking to herself (so I thought) in the same toneless mutter, enunciating the names of herbs and spices-cinnamon, thyme, peppermint, coriander, saffron, basil, lovage-running a monotonous commentary. See the tile. Has to be the right heat. Too low, the pancake is soggy. Too high, the butter fries black, smokes, the pancake crisps. I understood later that she was trying to educate me. I listened because I saw in our kitchen seminars the one way in which I might win a little of her approval, and because every good war needs the occasional amnesty. Country recipes from her native Brittany were her favorites; the buckwheat pancakes we ate with everything, the far breton and kouign amann and galette bretonne that we sold in downriver Angers with our goat’s cheeses and our sausage and fruit.
She always meant Cassis to have the farm. But Cassis was the first to leave, casually defiant, for Paris, breaking all contact except for his signature on a card every Christmas, and when she died, thirty years on, there was nothing to interest him in a half-derelict farmhouse on the Loire. I bought it from him with my own savings, my widow money, and at a good price too, but it was a fair deal, and he was happy enough to make it then. He understood the need to keep the place in the family.
Now, of course, all that’s changed. Cassis has a son of his own. The boy married Laure Dessanges, the food writer, and they own a restaurant in Angers. Aux Délices Dessanges. I met him a few times before Cassis died. I didn’t like him. Dark and flashy, already running to fat as his father did, though still handsome and knowing it, he seemed to be everywhere at once in his eagerness to please; called me Mamie; found a chair, insisted I take the most comfortable seat; made coffee, sugared, creamed, asked after my health, flattered me on this and that till I was almost dizzy with it. Cassis, sixty-odd then and swollen with the seeds of the coronary that would kill him, looked on with barely restrained pride. My son. See what a fine man he is. What a fine, attentive nephew you have.
Cassis called him Yannick, after our father, but I liked my nephew no more for that. That’s my mother in me, the dislike of conventions, of false intimacies. I don’t like to be touched and simpered over. I don’t see why the blood we share should tie us in affection. Or the secret of spilled blood we hid for so long between us.
Oh, yes. Don’t think I forgot that business. Not for a minute I didn’t, though the others tried hard enough. Cassis scrubbing pissoirs outside his Paris bar. Reinette working as an usherette in a porno cinema in Pigalle and sniffing from man to man like a lost dog. So much for her lipstick and silk stockings. At home she’d been the harvest queen, the darling, the undisputed village beauty. In Montmartre all women look the same. Poor Reinette.
I know what you’re thinking. You wish I’d get on with the story. It’s the only story about the old days that interests you now; the only thread in this tattered flag of mine that still catches the light. You want to hear about Tomas Leibniz. To have it clear, categorized, ended. Well, it isn’t as easy as that. Like my mother’s album, there are no page numbers. No beginning, and the end is raw as the seamless edge of an unhemmed skirt. But I’m an old woman-seems here just about everything gets old so quickly; must be the air-and I have my way of going about things. Besides, there are so many things for you to understand. Why my mother did what she did. Why we hid the truth for so long. And why I’m choosing to tell my story now, to strangers, to people who believe that a life can be condensed to a two-page spread in a Sunday supplement, a couple of photographs, a paragraph, a quote from Dostoevsky. Turn the page and it’s over.
No. Not this time. They’re going to take down every word. Can’t make them print it, of course, but by God, they’ll listen. I’ll make them do it.
My name is Framboise Dartigen. I was born right here, in the village of Les Laveuses, not fifteen kilometers from Angers, on the Loire. I’ll be sixty-five next July, baked and yellowed by the sun like a dried apricot. I have two daughters, Pistache, married to a banker in Rennes, and Noisette, who moved to Canada in ‘85 and writes to me every six months, two grandchildren who come to stay at the farm every summer. I wear black for a husband who died twenty years ago, under whose name I returned in secret to the village of my birth to buy back my mother’s farm-long abandoned, half gutted by fire and the elements. Here I am Françoise Simon, la veuve Simon, and no one would think to connect me with the Dartigen family who left in the wake of that dreadful business. I don’t know why it had to be this farm, this village. Perhaps I’m just stubborn. That was how it was. This is where I belong. The years with Hervé seem almost a blank now, like the strange calm patches you sometimes get in a stormy sea, a moment of waiting, of forgetfulness. But I never really forgot Les Laveuses. Not for a moment. Something in me was always here.
It took more than a year to make the farmhouse habitable. I lived in the south-facing wing, where at least the roof had held, and while the workmen replaced the roofing, tile by tile, I worked in the orchard-what was left of it-pruning and shaping and dragging down great wreaths of devouring mistletoe from the trees. My mother had a passion for all fruit except oranges, which she refused to allow in the house. She named each one of us, on a seeming whim, after a fruit and a recipe-Cassis, for her thick black-currant cake, Framboise, her raspberry liqueur, and Reinette after the reine-claude greengages that grew against the south wall of the house, thick as grapes, syrupy with wasps in midsummer. At one time we had over a hundred trees (apples, pears, plums, gages, cherries, quinces), not to mention the raspberry canes and the fields of strawberries, gooseberries, currants-the fruits of which were dried, stored, made into jams and liqueurs and wonderful cartwheel tarts on pâte brisée and crème pâtissière and almond paste. My memories are flavored with their scents, their colors, their names. My mother tended them as if they were her favorite children. Smudge pots against the frost, which we fed with our own winter fuel. Barrows full of manure dug around the base every spring. And in summer, to keep the birds away, we would tie shapes cut out of silver paper onto the ends of the branches that would shiver and flick-flack in the wind, moose blowers of string drawn tightly across empty tin cans to make eerie bird-frightening sounds, windmills of colored paper that would spin wildly, so that the orchard was a carnival of baubles and shining ribbons and shrieking wires, like a Christmas party in midsummer.
And the trees all had names. Belle Yvonne, my mother would say as she passed a gnarled pear tree. Rose d’Aquitaine. Beurre du Roi Henry. Her voice at these times was soft, almost monotone. I could not tell whether she was speaking to me or to herself. Conference. Williams. Ghislaine de Penthièvre. This sweetness.
Today there are fewer than twenty trees left in the orchard, though I have quite enough for my needs. My sour cherry liqueur is especially popular, though I feel a little guilty that I cannot remember the cherry’s name. The secret is to leave the stones in. Layer cherries and sugar one on the other in a widemouthed glass jar, covering each layer gradually with clear spirit (kirsch is best, but you can use vodka or even Armagnac) up to half the jar’s capacity. Top up with spirit and wait. Every month, turn the jar carefully to release any accumulated sugar. In three years’ time the spirit has bled the cherries white, itself stained deep red now, penetrating even to the stone and the tiny almond inside it, becoming pungent, evocative, a scent of autumn past. Serve in tiny liqueur glasses, with a spoon to scoop out the cherry, and leave it in the mouth until the macerated fruit dissolves under the tongue. Pierce the stone with the point of a tooth to release the liqueur trapped inside and leave it for a long time in the mouth, playing it with the tip of the tongue, rolling it under, over, like a single prayer bead. Try to remember the time of its ripening, that summer, that hot autumn, the time the well ran dry, the time we had the wasps’ nests, time past, lost, found again in the hard place at the heart of the fruit…
I know. I know. You want me to get to the point. But this is at least as important as the rest, the method of telling, and the time taken to tell… It has taken me fifty-five years to begin. At least let me do it in my own way.
When I came back to Les Laveuses I was almost sure no one would recognize me. All the same I showed myself clearly, almost brazenly, about the village. If someone did know me, if they managed to distinguish in my features those of my mother, then I wanted to know it immediately. I wanted to know where I stood.
I walked to the Loire every day and sat on the flat stones where Cassis and I had fished for tench. I stood on the stump of the Lookout Post. Some of the Standing Stones are missing now, but you can still see the pickets where we hung our trophies, the garlands and ribbons and Old Mother’s head when we finally caught her. I went to Brassaud’s tobacconist’s-his son runs it now, but the old man is still alive, his eyes black and baleful and aware-to Raphaël’s café, the post office where Ginette Hourias is postmistress.
I even went to the war memorial. On one side, the eighteen names of our soldiers killed in the war, beneath the carved motto Morts pour la patrie. I noticed that my father’s name has been chiseled off, leaving a rough patch between Darius G. and Fenouil J. – P. On the other side, a brass plaque with ten names in larger letters. I did not need to read them. I know them by heart. But I feigned interest, knowing that inevitably someone would tell me the story, perhaps show me the place against the west wall of Saint-Benedict’s, tell me that every year there was a special service to remember them, that their names were read out from the steps of the memorial and flowers laid out… I wondered whether I could bear it. I wondered whether they would know from my face.
Martin Dupré. Jean-Marie Dupré. Colette Gaudin. Philippe Hourias. Henri Lemaître. Julien Lanicen. Arthur Lecoz. Agnès Petit. François Ramondin. Auguste Truriand. So many people still remember. So many people with the same names, the same faces. The Families have stayed here, the Hourias, the Lanicens, the Ramondins, the Duprés. Sixty years later they still remember, the young coached in casual hatred by the old.
There was some interest in me for a time. Some curiosity. That same house. Abandoned since she left it, that Dartigen woman, I can’t quite remember the details, madame, but my father-my uncle-Why had I bought the place, anyway, they asked? It was an eyesore, a black spot. The trees that were still left standing were half rotten with mistletoe and disease. The well had been concreted over, filled in with rubble and stones. But I remembered a farm neat and thriving and busy, horses, goats, chickens, rabbits… I liked to think that perhaps the wild ones that ran across the north field might be their descendants, occasionally glimpsed patches of white among the brown. To satisfy the curious, I invented a childhood on a Breton farm. The land was cheap, I explained. I made myself humble, apologetic. Some of the old ones viewed me askance, thinking, perhaps, that the farm should have stayed a memorial forever. I wore black and hid my hair beneath a succession of scarves. You see, I was old from the beginning.
Even so, it took some time for me to be accepted. People were polite but unwelcoming, and because I am not of a naturally social disposition-surly, my mother used to call it-they remained so. I did not go to church. I know how it must have looked, but I could not bring myself to go. Arrogance, perhaps, or the kind of defiance that led my mother to name us after fruit rather than the Church’s saints… It took the shop to make me a part of the community.
It began as a shop, though I had always intended to expand later. Three years after my arrival, and Hervé‘s money was almost gone. The house was livable now, though the land was still virtually useless: a dozen trees, a vegetable patch, two pygmy goats and some chickens and ducks-clearly it would be some time before I could make a living from the land. I began to make cakes and to sell them-the brioche and pain d’épices of the region as well as some of my mother’s Breton specialties, packets of crêpes dentelle, fruit tarts and packs of sablés, biscuits, nut bread, cinnamon snaps… At first I sold them from the local bakery, then from the farm itself, adding other items little by little: eggs, goat’s cheeses, fruit liqueurs and wines. With the profits I bought pigs, rabbits, more goats. I used my mother’s old recipes, working most often from memory, but consulting the album from time to time.
Memory plays such strange games; no one in Les Laveuses seemed even to remember my mother’s cooking. Some of the older people even said what a difference my presence had made; the woman who was here before was a hard-faced sloven. Her house reeked, her children ran barefoot. Good riddance to her, to them. I winced inwardly but said nothing. What could I have said? That she waxed the floorboards every day, made us wear felt over-slippers in the house so that our shoes would not scuff the floor? That her window boxes were always brimming with flowers? That she scrubbed us with the same fierce impartiality with which she scrubbed the steps, Indian-burning our faces with the flannel so that we were sometimes afraid we might bleed?
She is an evil legend here. There was even a book once. Not more than a pamphlet really. Fifty pages, a few photographs. One of the memorial, one of Saint-Benedict’s, a close-up of the fateful west wall. Only a passing reference to the three of us, not even our names. I was grateful for that. A blurry blown-up photograph of my mother, hair scraped back so fiercely from her face that her eyes looked chinesed, mouth crimped into a tight little line of disapproval. The official photograph of my father, the one from the album, in uniform, looking absurdly young, rifle slung casually over one arm, grinning. Then, almost at the end of the book, the photograph that made me catch my breath like a fish with a hook in its throat. Four young men in German uniforms, arms linked except for the fourth, standing a little to the side, self-consciously, a saxophone in one hand… The others are also carrying musical instruments-a trumpet, a side drum, a clarinet-and though their names are not given, I know them all. Les Laveuses military ensemble, circa 1942. Far right, Tomas Leibniz.
It took me some time to understand how they could have found out so many details. Where had they discovered the picture of my mother? As far as I knew there were no pictures of her. Even I had only ever seen one, an old wedding photo in the bottom of a bedroom drawer, two people on the steps of Saint-Benedict’s, he wearing a broad-brimmed hat and she loose-haired and with a flower behind one ear… A different woman, then, smiling stiffly, shyly at the camera, the man beside her standing with one arm protectively around her shoulders. I understood that if my mother knew I had seen the photograph she would be angry, and replaced it, trembling a little, troubled almost without knowing the reason why.
The photograph in the book is more like her, more like the woman I thought I knew but never knew at all, hard-faced and eternally on the brink of rage… Then, looking at the author’s picture on the flyleaf of the book, I finally understood from where the information had come. Laure Dessanges, journalist and food writer, short red hair and practiced smile. Yannick’s wife. Cassis’s daughter-in-law. Poor, stupid Cassis. Poor blind Cassis, blinded by his pride in his successful son. Risking our undoing for the sake of… what? Or had he really come to believe his fiction?