"Well, we could do with some help here," I suggested. "Not you, of course--" quickly, as he began to reply. "But perhaps you know someone who could do with the extra money? A plasterer, someone who might be able to help with the decorating?" This was surely safe territory.
"I can't think of anyone." He is guarded, more so than anyone I have ever met. "But I'll ask around." Perhaps he will. He knows his duty to the new arrival. But I know he will not find anyone. His is not a nature that grants favors graciously. His eyes flicked warily to the pile of bread and salt by the door.
"For luck." I smiled, but his face was stony. He skirted the little offering as if it offended him.
"Maman?" Anouk's head appeared in the doorway, hair standing out in crazy spikes. "Pantoufle wants to play outside. Can we?"
I nodded. "Stay in the garden." I wiped a smudge of dirt from the bridge of her nose. "You look a complete urchin." I saw her glance at the priest and caught her comical look just in time. "This is Monsieur Reynaud, Anouk. Why don't you say hello?"
"Hello!" shouted Anouk on the way to the door. "Good-bye!" A blur of yellow jumper and red overalls and she was gone, her feet skidding manically on the greasy tiles. Not for the first time, I was almost sure I saw Pantoufle disappearing in her wake, a darker smudge against the dark lintel.
"She's only six," I said by way of explanation.
Reynaud gave a tight, sour smile, as if his first glimpse of my daughter confirmed every one of his suspicions about me.
Thursday, February 13.
Thank God that's over. Visits tire me to the bone. I don't mean you, of
course, mon père; my weekly visit to you is a luxury, you might almost say my
only one. I hope you like the flowers. They don't look much, but they smell
wonderful. I'll put them here, beside your chair, where you can see them. It's a
good view from here across the fields, with the Tannes in the middle distance
and the Garonne gleaming in the far. You might almost imagine we were alone. Oh,
I'm not complaining. Not really. But you must know how heavy it is for one man
to carry. Their petty concerns, their dissatisfactions, their foolishness, their
thousand trivial problems ... On Tuesday it was the carnival. Anyone might have
taken them for savages, dancing and screaming. Louis Perrin's youngest, Claude,
fired a water pistol at me, and what would his father say but that he was a
youngster, and needed to play a little? All I want is to guide them, mon père,
to free them from their sin. But they fight me at every turn, like children
refusing wholesome fare in order to continue eating what sickens them. I know
you understand. For fifty years you held all this on your shoulders in patience
and strength. You earned their love. Have times changed so much? Here I am
feared, respected ... but loved, no. Their faces are sullen, resentful.
Yesterday they left the service with ash on their foreheads and a look of guilty
relief. Left to their secret indulgences, their solitary vices. Don't they
understand? The Lord sees everything. I see everything. Paul-Marie Muscat beats
his wife. He pays ten Aves weekly in the confessional and leaves to begin again
in exactly the same way. His wife steals. Last week she went to the market and
stole trumpery jewelry from a vendor's stall. Guillaume Duplessis wants to know
if animals have souls, and weeps when I tell him they don't. Charlotte Edouard
thinks her husband has a mistress--I know he has three, but the confessional
keeps me silent. What children they are! Their demands leave me bloodied and
reeling. But I cannot afford to show weakness. Sheep are not the docile,
pleasant creatures of the pastoral idyll. Any countryman will tell you that.
They are sly, occasionally vicious, pathologically stupid. The lenient shepherd
may find his flock unruly, defiant. I cannot afford to be lenient. That is why,
once a week, I allow myself this one indulgence. Your mouth is as closely
sealed, mon père, as that of the confessional. Your ears are always open, your
heart always kind. For an hour I can lay aside the burden. I can be fallible.
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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