"On holiday, madame?" Village etiquette allows him to ask; behind his tradesman's indifference I see a real hunger. Knowledge is currency here; with Agen and Montauban so close, tourists are a rarity.
"For a while."
"From Paris, then?" It must be our clothes. In this garish land the people are drab. Color is a luxury; it wears badly. The bright blossoms of the roadside are weeds, invasive, useless.
"No, no, not Paris."
The char is almost at the end of the street. A small band--two fifes, two trumpets, a trombone, and a side drum--follow it, playing a thin unidentifiable march. A dozen children scamper in its wake, picking up the unclaimed sweets. Some are in costume; I see Little Red Riding Hood and a shaggy person who might be the wolf squabbling companionably over possession of a handful of streamers.
A black figure brings up the rear. At first I take him for a part of the parade--the Plague Doctor, maybe--but as he approaches I recognize the old-fashioned soutane of the country priest. He is in his thirties, though from a distance his rigid stance makes him seem older. He turns toward me, and I see that he too is a stranger, with the high cheekbones and pale eyes of the north and long pianist's fingers resting on the silver cross that hangs from his neck. Perhaps this is what gives him the right to stare at me, this alienness; but I see no welcome in his cold, light eyes. Only the measuring, feline look of one who is uncertain of his territory. I smile at him; he looks away, startled; beckons the two children toward him. A gesture indicates the litter that now lines the road; reluctantly the pair begin to clear it, scooping up spent streamers and candy wrappers in their arms and into a nearby bin. I catch the priest staring at me again as I turn away, a look that in another man might have been of appraisal.
There is no police station at Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, therefore no crime. I try to be like Anouk, to see beneath the disguise to the truth, but for now everything is blurred.
"Are we staying? Are we, maman?" She tugs at my arm, insistently. "I like it, I like it here. Are we staying?"
I catch her up into my arms and kiss the top of her head. She smells of smoke and frying pancakes and warm bedclothes on a winter's morning.
Why not? It's as good a place as any.
"Yes, of course," I tell her, my mouth in her hair. "Of course we are." Not quite a lie. This time it may even be true.
* * *
The carnival is gone. Once a year the village flares into transient brightness, but even now the warmth has faded, the crowd dispersed. The vendors pack up their hot plates and awnings, the children discard their costumes and party favors. A slight air of embarrassment prevails, of abashment at this excess of noise and color. Like rain in midsummer it evaporates, runs into the cracked earth and through the parched stones, leaving barely a trace. Two hours later Lansquenet-sous-Tannes is invisible once more, like an enchanted village that appears only once every year. But for the carnival we should have missed it altogether.
We have gas but as yet no electricity. On our first night I made pancakes for Anouk by candlelight and we ate them by the fireside, using an old magazine for plates, as none of our things can be delivered until tomorrow. The shop was originally a bakery and still carries the baker's wheatsheaf carved above the narrow doorway, but the floor is thick with a floury dust, and we picked our way across a drift of junk mail as we came in. The lease seems ridiculously cheap, accustomed as we are to city prices; even so I caught the sharp glance of suspicion from the woman at the agency as I counted out the banknotes. On the lease document I am Vianne Rocher, the signature a hieroglyph that might mean anything. By the light of the candle we explored our new territory; the old ovens still surprisingly good beneath the grease and soot, the pine-paneled walls, the blackened earthen tiles. Anouk found the old awning folded away in a back room, and we dragged it out; spiders scattered from under the faded canvas. Our living area is above the shop: two rooms and a bathroom, ridiculously tiny balcony, terra-cotta planter with dead geraniums.... Anouk made a face when she saw it.
From Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Copyright Joanne Harris 1999. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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