We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the
hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausages and powdery-sweet waffles
cooked on the hot plate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting
down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters like an idiot antidote to
winter. There is a febrile excitement in the crowds that line the narrow main
street, necks craning to catch sight of the crêpe-covered char with its
trailing ribbons and paper rosettes. Anouk watches, eyes wide, a yellow balloon
in one hand and a toy trumpet in the other, from between a shopping basket and a
sad brown dog. We have seen carnivals before, she and I; a procession of two
hundred and fifty of the decorated chars in Paris last Mardi Gras, a hundred and
eighty in New York, two dozen marching bands in Vienna, clowns on stilts, the
Grosses Têtes with their lolling papier-mâché heads, drum majorettes with
batons spinning and sparkling. But at six the world retains a special luster. A
wooden cart, hastily decorated with gilt and crêpe and scenes from fairy tales.
A dragon's head on a shield, Rapunzel in a woolen wig, a mermaid with a
cellophane tail, a gingerbread house all icing and gilded cardboard, a witch in
the doorway, waggling extravagant green fingernails at a group of silent
children.... At six it is possible to perceive subtleties that a year later are
already out of reach. Behind the papier-mâché, the icing, the plastic, she can
still see the real witch, the real magic. She looks up at me, her eyes, which
are the blue-green of Earth seen from a great height, shining.
"Are we staying? Are we staying here?" I have to remind her to speak French. "But are we? Are we?" She clings to my sleeve. Her hair is a cotton-candy tangle in the wind.
I consider. It's as good a place as any. Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, two hundred souls at most, no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux. Blink once, and it's gone. One main street, a double row of dun-colored half-timbered houses leaning secretively together, a few laterals running parallel like the tines of a bent fork. A church, aggressively whitewashed, in a square of little shops. Farms scattered across the watchful land. Orchards, vineyards, strips of earth enclosed and regimented according to the strict apartheid of country farming: here apples, there kiwis, melons, endives beneath their black plastic shells, vines looking blighted and dead in the thin February sun but awaiting triumphant resurrection by March.... Behind that the Tannes, small tributary of the Garonne, fingers its way across the marshy pasture. And the people? They look much like all others we have known; a little pale perhaps in the unaccustomed sunlight, a little drab. Headscarves and berets are the color of the hair beneath, brown, black, or gray. Faces are lined like last summer's apples, eyes pushed into wrinkled flesh like marbles into old dough. A few children, flying colors of red and lime green and yellow, seem like a different race. As the char advances ponderously along the street behind the old tractor that pulls it, a large woman with a square, unhappy face clutches a tartan coat about her shoulders and shouts something in the half-comprehensible local dialect; on the wagon a squat Santa Claus, out of season among the fairies and sirens and goblins, hurls sweets at the crowd with barely restrained aggression. A small-featured elderly man, wearing a felt hat rather than the round beret more common to the region, picks up the sad brown dog from between my legs with a look of polite apology. I see his thin graceful fingers moving in the dog's fur; the dog whines; the master's expression becomes complex with love, concern, guilt. No one looks at us. We might as well be invisible; our clothing marks us as strangers, transients. They are polite, so polite; no one stares at us. The woman, her long hair tucked into the collar of her orange coat, a long silk scarf fluttering at her throat; the child in yellow Wellingtons and sky blue mac. Their coloring marks them. Their clothes are exotic, their faces--are they too pale or too dark?--their hair marks them other, foreign, indefinably strange. The people of Lansquenet have learned the art of observation without eye contact. I feel their gaze like a breath on the nape of my neck, strangely without hostility but cold nevertheless. We are a curiosity to them, a part of the carnival, a whiff of the outlands. I feel their eyes upon us as I turn to buy a galette from the vendor. The paper is hot and greasy, the dark wheat pancake crispy at the edges but thick and good in the center. I break off a piece and give it to Anouk, wiping melted butter from her chin. The vendor is a plump, balding man with thick glasses, his face slick with the steam from the hot plate. He winks at her. With the other eye he takes in every detail, knowing there will be questions later.
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
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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