The first time she is conscious of seeing her motherwhom shed thought as much a part of herself as the scar on her forehead or her broken front toothjudged by a strangers eyes.
Vanessa is taking Rat and the neighbors kids to the beach. To get to the beach from their place, you have to cross a highway. Its not a megahighwaythere are only two lanesbut its the kind of dead-straight, flat-as-a-pancake, five-kilometer stretch where drivers like to pretend theyre practicing for the ParisDakar. Theres a culvert that runs under the highway, which is where you are supposed to cross, but after its rained, the tunnel goes knee-deep in black mud. So Vanessa has made the kids scramble up the embankment, and now is urging them across the road.
Theres nothing hurried about Rats mothers approach: she is strolling right into the threat of fast traffic, willing any oncoming cars to halt. Solenne, who is little more than a toddler, Vanessa is gripping firmly by the hand. Rat and Solenne s big sister, Emilie, are following closely, like chicks with the mother hen, hesitant, then scrambling in jerky moves to safety.
Only Jérôme is left behind. Vanessa yells at Jérôme to move his butt, but he has frozen. Remains stock-still by the far side of the road, seemingly unable to budge. Its obvious neither he nor Vanessa is going to make a move, so finally Rat goes darting back and grabs him. Jérômes a year older than she is, but sometimes he just spazzes out. On the near lane, there s a gap in the traffic, but on the far side, as they cross, there s a van heading right for them.
Youd never think a machine could be sarcastic, but the lordly last-minuteness with which this van grinds to a halt exudes contempt. When they are safely across, Rats mama smacks Jérômes skinny butt. When I say come, you come.
The drivers windows down. Hes watching the spectacle with an air of disbelief. Then he leans out his window and says, Lady, it isnt your son who deserves the spanking.
Vanessas eggshell skin stains red with anger. Connard! she shouts back. Her words are lost in the engine s departing roar.
Rat picks up Jérômes towel and bathing suit, but her heads on fire. She s burning from the shock of seeing her mother as others might see her. Vanessa has done something demonstrably dangerous, and she s been scolded like a child for it!
What an asshole, Vanessa says, once they reach the beach. What is it about people they cant mind their own business, they have to stand over you, nya nya nya all the time?
Rat doesnt answer.
Vanessa takes her own sweet time choosing the perfect patch of sand, not too far from the water, not too damp, unrolling their mats and securing them with rocks. Jérôme and his sisters are already waist-deep in the sea.
When shes done, she strips down to her bikini bottom and stretches out delicately on her mat. And only then notices that her daughter is still standing.
Whats biting you?
Finally Rat says it. Mama, that was dangerous what you made us do. And why did you have to spank Jérôme?
Theres an unspoken etiquette thats been breached: unless youre a teacher, you dont smack other people s children.
Vanessa sits up, bare tits bobbling, instantly furious. Look, whose side are you on, anyway? All my life people have been standing over me, telling me what to do, snipping at me for even breathing. You think its easy, lugging four sniveling brats to the beach? Would you rather be back at the house, broiling? Enjoy yourself. Relax, have a swim, live it up a little. And leave me the fuck alone. Okay?
Excerpted from Rat
by Fernanda Eberstadt, pages 10-13 from the hardcover edition.
Copyright © 2010 by Fernanda Eberstadt. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing 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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