The day Yolande ran away from home, never to return— never to return to Bellefleur Manor—was also the day of Germaine’s first birthday. But was there any connection between the two events. . . .?
On that dry, warm, relentlessly sunny August day, when no breeze blew across Lake Noir, or down from the mountains, there was to be a large birthday party in the late afternoon, to which Leah had impulsively invited all the young children in the area and their mothers—all the children from reasonably good families, that is. (And she invited the Renauds, whom she rarely saw now, and the Steadmans and the Burnsides, and even wrote out an invitation to the Fuhrs which, when she reread it, struck her as humiliatingly meek: so she discarded it.) In her enthusiasm over seeking out financial and political support for the family, Leah had quite neglected people close to home; she had not even thought of them for months. Please come to help us celebrate the first birthday of our darling Germaine, she wrote gaily.
At tea-time there would be a huge square chocolate cake with pink frosting and GERMAINE 1 YEAR OLD in creamy vanilla letters and an entire table and a stone bench heaped with presents out back on the terrace; there would be paper hats and noisemakers and surprise treats for the younger children, and champagne for everyone else, and even musical entertainment (Vernon planned to play his flute, while Yolande and Vida danced, costumed in long dresses and veils and feather boas dragged out of one of the trunks in the attic); and Jasper was to lead his young Irish setter through the complicated tricks he had taught the dog over the summer. . . . We hope to have a marvelous time and we hope you can join us!
But Yolande and Christabel planned a smaller birthday celebration, in one of the children’s secret places on the bank of Mink Creek (the Bellefleur children, in every generation, had “secret” places—in passageways, in nooks and crannies and cupboards and cubbyholes, in hay lofts, beneath the floorboards of abandoned barns, behind evergreens, behind boulders, up trees, on roofs, in ice-tunnels (in winter), in manor towers whose floors were strewn with the skeletons of birds and bats and mice, in the old “Roman bath” their elders presumed was safely boarded up): they had nagged Edna into allowing them to bake and frost some cupcakes, and they had stolen from the kitchen larder a half-dozen ripe peaches and some sweet black cherries and a pound of rum-flavored chocolates from Holland. Yolande slipped into her pocket some pink candles for the cupcakes, and a box of kitchen matches from Edna’s stove. What a lark it would be, with no adults—with no Leah—hovering near!
So at mid-morning they took Germaine out to play in the garden as usual, but they soon crept away through the gate at the rear, each of them holding her by the hand. They would hurry to Mink Creek, to a pretty little cove a short distance from the lake, where the creek emptied into the lake, and there—seated on pine logs, protected from the sun by low-hanging willow branches—they would have their own private birthday celebration, and no one would know. (A noisy gang of boys—Garth and Albert and Jasper and Louis, and a visiting cousin from Derby, Dave Cinquefoil—were swimming off the Bellefleur dock; but they couldn’t see the girls, and Leah and Lily and Aveline and grandmother Cornelia were being fitted for their fall clothes by a dressmaker and her assistant from the Falls, so they would be occupied all morning.)
“This is a special day, Germaine,” Yolande said, stopping to kiss her cousin. “It’s your first birthday and it will never come again. . . . Do you know a year ago you weren’t born yet! And when you were born you were just a baby, a helpless little baby, nothing like you are now!”
Germaine had grown into a sturdy toddler, large for her age—very pretty—with red-brown curls and a small snubbed nose and those amazing green-bronze eyes, whose fabled luminosity varied: in the candle-lit shadows of Leah’s bedchamber they frequently glowed with a discomforting intensity, but in the ordinary glare of mid-morning sun they appeared no more striking than Yolande’s and Christabel’s eyes (for Yolande and Christabel were also extremely attractive). Germaine was a baby, still, and yet more than a baby. She was intermittently and unpredictably precocious: she knew many words but would not always say them. Then again she could be a terrible infant in a matter of seconds, mewling and bawling and kicking and thrashing about. It was observed widely that she behaved well when Leah was not present, but no one dared tell Leah that. Yolande was of the opinion that she could be Germaine’s mother, and that Germaine would be far better off. (“Your mother is always fussing over Germaine, she’s always kissing and hugging and talking to her, talking some kind of private baby talk, she’s always looking at her— that would drive me wild!” Yolande told Christabel. “She doesn’t look at me,” Christabel said weakly.)
Germaine was also given to queer prolonged spells of “knowingness”—when her gaze deepened but seemed unfocussed, and her baby’s face shifted into impassivity. At such times there was a stubborn Bellefleur set to her pursed lips; she would not respond to kisses, queries, love-pinches, or even little slaps. She disturbed the servants by coming up silently behind them. She discomforted one of the dogs by staring into his eyes. Sometimes she left off playing and was to be seen perched up on the white wrought-iron chair that was usually Leah’s, in the garden, with her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand, her expression still and sad and prematurely melancholy. In the nursery one morning she astonished Irene by babbling excitedly, “Bird—bird— Bird—” and pointing to the window, not five seconds before a small bird—it must have been a warbler—slammed into it and fell, its neck broken, down into the shrubbery. Once Garth hitched up the old pony cart to the last pony on the estate, a gentle, shaggy, rather lazy Shetland, with faded brown markings, and watched over Germaine and Little Goldie as they rode squealing with delight around the weedy track; and he claimed that the baby put her hands to her ears and shut her eyes tight a few seconds before the pony trotted over a rock that flew up into the cart’s axle and nearly overturned it. . . . (On the eve of her birthday Germaine was reluctant to be put to bed, and behaved quite disgracefully in her bath. Leah, her face flaming, was forced to shake the child and cry, “No you don’t, no, you’re bad, you’re deliberately and shamelessly bad and you know better and I won’t tolerate it!”—and bundle her off, still kicking, to bed. She thrashed about, she threw her pillow out of the crib, she wailed, and held her breath, and choked and sputtered and spat, and threw a tantrum lying down, as Leah watched, biting her lip, but making no move to interfere—for she wouldn’t be manipulated—and then finally, after an interminable period, Germaine grew tired, and the wails were sobs, and the sobs faint petulant gasps, and suddenly her eyes were closed, and she slept. But within an hour she was awake again, screaming more violently than ever; and when Leah rushed to her, she was sitting up in bed, her skin clammy, her pajamas soaked with sweat, babbling about fire—she clutched at Leah and fixed her with those great staring eyes, and babbled about fire—in a voice so terror-stricken that Leah’s heart nearly failed. She comforted the baby and changed her and brought her to bed in the big bed (for Gideon was away on business that night; he hoped to return by tea-time the following day); and after Germaine fell asleep, Leah put on a dressing gown and wandered about the manor, too frightened to sleep, convinced that there might be a fire—there had been fires enough in the old days—and that Germaine had smelled the smoke or in some way seen the fire—or had foreseen it—but of course there was nothing. And when Leah returned to her bed at 4 A. M. she found her daughter sleeping deeply and placidly as any one-year-old.)
The girls were in their secret cove only a half-hour when they were joined by twin ginger kittens, about seven weeks old, but unusually long-bodied, who came mewing through the grass and were greeted with cries of delight: the kittens were petted, hugged, kissed, fed cupcake crumbs, and allowed to go through the frenzied motions of nursing against Yolande’s neck (“Oh how they tickle! Aren’t they silly! Just look—the way they knead their paws and shut their eyes and purr, sucking at nothing at all!” she cried), and finally to drop off to sleep in Yolande’s and Christabel’s laps.
And then the boy appeared.
No, first he threw a rock—a large rock that splashed in the creek only a few feet from where Christabel sat.
The girls screamed, and then Yolande shouted, “Damn you, go to hell!”, thinking it was one of the Bellefleur boys. But it was a stranger: a boy in overalls with a cloth cap on his head, and he had a most jeering moronic grin as he came splashing along the creek, bringing his feet down with exaggerated force.
He jumped up on the bank, and seized one of the kittens. Holding it against his chest, he petted it roughly, and puckered his lips, and said Kitty, nice kitty, kitty-kitty-kitty, in a high-pitched voice meant to mimic Yolande’s.
“You put that kitten down! That’s our kitten!” Yolande said.
The boy ignored her. His expression was flaccid and self-contained, as if he were alone. “Don’t you scare that kitten,” Yolande said faintly.
Christabel had scrambled farther up the bank, hugging herself; Germaine was sitting in the grass, a messy half-eaten peach in her hand. Yolande got slowly to her feet, staring at the boy. She was very frightened. But angry too. “You don’t have any right to be here,” she whispered.
The boy looked at her for the first time. His eyes were small, mud-brown, moist. On his forehead were premature lines, which deepened with mock concern.
”You got no right to be here,” he said.
He reached up to tug the cap down more tightly on his forehead, still holding the kitten against his chest. It had begun to struggle wildly.
Then Christabel asked nervously if he’d like something to eat—a cupcake or a peach—would he like some candies— and the boy turned from Yolande to Christabel, his expression still impassive. “Candies,” he said, approaching Christabel, his mouth opening, his ugly tongue protruding like a dog’s, so that she understood he wanted the chocolates put in his mouth. Which she did, with a thin little giggle. The boy chewed two candies, frowning, then spat them out—spat them into the creek without bothering to lean over, so that the mess dribbled on his trouser legs.
”. . . kinda shit is that. . . . Trying to poison me. . . .” he muttered.
“Those are good candies! Those are from Holland!” Yolande cried.
He took hold of Christabel by the hair and pulled her to the creek bank and pushed her off, and she fell splashing into two or three feet of water. “You want to come swimming too?” he asked Yolande. “You and the baby? Eh? Take off your clothes and come swimming too?”
“Don’t you dare come near me,” Yolande said.
He stared at her, and smiled slowly, revealing his tobacco-stained teeth. Yolande saw that he was Garth’s age, but that something was wrong, something was terribly wrong with him. “You want to take off your clothes, eh? And get in the creek with me? All of us, eh? Come on! Hurry up!—I know your name, missy,” he said softly. “It’s Yolande.”
“Go home,” Yolande said, her voice shaking. “You shouldn’t be here, you’ll get into trouble. If you go home now we won’t tell. . . .”
“You get out of here,” the boy said to Christabel, who was trying not to cry, “and take the baby with you. Go on—get! I don’t want no crowd here.”
“Please,” Yolande said, “leave us alone. . . ..”
“We’re going swimming! You and me! Gonna take off our clothes and go swimming!”
Germaine had begun to make faint sounds, whimpering, gasping, as she pushed herself backward on the grass. The boy, peering at her stood very still for a long moment, the kitten crushed against her chest, and then said: “Get her out of here! I don’t want no baby here! I don’t want no bawling baby here!”
Yolande picked Germaine up to comfort her, and Christabel hurried to crouch behind them. Her bare legs streamed water, and her teeth had begun to chatter.
“D’you hear what I said, you!—you there!” the boy said to Christabel. “Take that baby and get the hell out of here! I don’t want no goddam bawlin baby here!—Or I’m going to do this to all of you,” he said, making a sudden gesture as if he were twisting the kitten’s head off. When the girls screamed, he grinned at them, and showed that the kitten was untouched, but made the gesture again, his hand cupped about its head—and again the girls screamed, and Germaine began to shriek. He laughed at their distress, but a moment later was irritated by it, and said, raising his voice to be heard over the baby’s terrified wails, “You’re making me mad! You don’t want to make me mad! Yolande Bellefleur, you don’t want to make Johnny mad ‘cause I know your name and I know how to get you—Yolande Bellefleur, Yolande Bellefleur—you want something nice to stuff your pussy with? Better shut up that baby—”
But the baby continued to cry. And Christabel, crouched behind Yolande, had to press her hand against her mouth to keep from sobbing.
“I can’t stand no bawling,” the boy said. “Y’want me to do this to you all—” Again he made the twisting gesture, but this time he did twist the kitten’s head. It made a single hideous ear-piercing cry and must have slashed his hands with its claws, for he swore, and threw it out into the creek as lightly as he might have thrown a stone: it sank into the swift-flowing current in the center, a small hurtling scrap of orange, sinking immediately from sight. It had all taken place so quickly the girls could not grasp what had happened. This terrible boy had wrung the kitten’s neck, he had thrown it into the creek. . . . And what was he saying about the baby, taking the baby away, what did he want with Yolande. . . .
“We could go swimming. Or we could go over there,” the boy said, indicating with a jerk of his head an abandoned barn on a rise nearby. “Just you and me, Yolande. I don’t want none of them others. . . . Y’want me to twist all your heads off? Eh? Better stop bawling! Y’want me to come back and get the rest of your pets? Damn fucking cats all over the place
Clearly he too was frightened. His young voice rose and fell with anguish, with daring, with an inarticulate rage; in his impatience he danced about, stomping, bringing the heel of his boot down hard near the girls’ feet, as if he were teasing a dog. He touched Yolande’s hair. His fingers closed in her hair. A kind of radiance broke across his face—his ugly smile faded—he simply stared at her. After a long moment he said, in a low, broken voice:” . . .that barn over there . . .just you and me . . .just for a few minutes. . . . Yolande. . . . Yolande Bellefleur. . . . Just for a few minutes
“Barn! What barn! Where is there a barn. . . .” Yolande whispered.
The boy pointed.
She laughed, turning, shading her eyes. There was a barn nearby. One of the old hop-curing barns. It was badly rotted now, on the brink of collapse: moss of a bright lurid green grew on the sagging roof; even a few tiny maples nested there. “Oh there. . . . That.. . .” Yolande said.
He tugged at her hair. Hard. Then a little harder. He did his angry dance-step again, nudging Yolande’s foot. And nudging her with his knee. Like a puppet she did not resist: she did not even cry out when his fingers yanked her hair.
“Y’want me to come back here sometime, at night, I could come back at night, and wring all your heads off, all the goddam fucking Bellefleur heads, wring ‘em off and throw ‘em in the creek,” the boy said softly, bumping against Yolande. “Y’want me to. . . .”
“No,” said Yolande. “No. It’s all right. I’ll go with you.”
“You’ll go with me ?”
“Christabel,” said Yolande, in an unnaturally high voice, “take the baby home. Take the baby home and stay there. It’s all right. I’ll go with him. It’s all right. . . . Honey, please stop crying. It’s the best way, doing what he says. Then everything will be all right. Do you understand?”
She understood. She seemed to understand. Though Germaine was clearly too heavy for her, she even tried to carry her for a few yards; then she lowered the baby to the ground and walked her along. Grinning, her face wet with tears, Christabel waved goodbye to Yolande and the boy. And Yolande waved back. The boy was standing close beside her, his fist still closed in her hair. He was very tall. He had pulled the cap down so tightly on his forehead that his head looked too small for his body. Christabel was to remember that cap—it was gray, with a faded initial—black, or deep red—and its visor was frayed. She was to remember the boy’s queer twitching grin and his moist eyes and the agitation of the air about them, as if they were standing on a violently rocking surface. And Yolande’s posture, so stiffly erect. And her calmness. Could it be possible—her calmness! Jaws set rigid so that her teeth would not chatter, eyes opened wide in a doll’s paralyzed stare—
“Goodbye! I’ll be along in a while! Take care of Germaine! Stop her crying! It’s all right! It’s all right!” Yolande shouted.
Of course Christabel ran for help, dragging the baby along. She ran to the lake, where the boys had been swimming; now most of them were on the dock, partly dressed. Garth was the first to hear her screaming.
It seemed that someone had hurt Yolande—or was with her now—trying to throw her in the creek?—drown her? Or were they in one of the barns—?
The boys ran along the creek, found no one at the cove, climbed the hill to the barn, and discovered, there, Yolande and the boy—Yolande’s dress was ripped from her shoulders, her small white breasts were exposed, her face was contorted, she shouted Stop him! Help me! Help me! She pushed her way free of the boy, who cowered back, his face sagging with astonishment: he stared at Garth and Albert and Jasper and the others as if he could not believe what he saw. Garth recognized him as one of the Doans—son of one of the Bellefleurs’ tenant farmers—and stooped at once to pick up a sizable rock. Don’t let him out! Kill him! Kill him! Yolande was screaming. Though Garth would not have required her help she seized his arm, tore at him, pushed him forward, even struck his shoulder with her fist. Oh kill him! she screamed, her snarled hair in her face, Don’t let him live!
Which is what happened.
Though precisely what did happen . . . ?
For within ten minutes the barn was in flames. One of the boys tossed a lighted match, and the barn exploded in flames. (But which of the boys did it? Jasper claimed to have seen his brother Louis strike a match, Louis denied it but claimed to have seen Garth, Garth was certain he’d seen Dave, but Dave, turning his pockets inside-out, claimed that he never carried matches in his trouser pockets, only his shirt pocket, and his shirt was back on the dock: he halfway thought he’d seen Albert throw the match.)
They bombarded the Doan boy with rocks, yelling and hooting, two of them at the doorway of the barn, the others at the windows, pelting him with rocks (some of them so heavy they could barely be thrown) and stones and pebbles and chunks of dried mud and cow manure, and even branches, and old rusted parts from farm machinery, anything they could get their hands on, anything that might have weight enough to give pain. Yolande, in a frenzy, the bodice of her dress still hanging torn about her hips, ran from window to window, throwing rocks, screaming in a voice no one had ever heard before. Oh kill him! The filthy thing! The filthy thing! He doesn’t deserve to live!
Bleeding from the forehead and cheek, whimpering, the Doan boy instinctively ran to a corner, and crouched there, his hands protecting his neck, his entire body shaking; but Garth, leaning in a window, was able to bring something down on his back directly—something rusty and pointed— and a stream of blood leapt out and soaked through his coveralls. And then, within seconds, the barn was in flames. It was odd, it was very odd, afterward a number of the boys considered how odd it was, that they hadn’t run into the barn after him—for some reason they had stayed outside—they had contented themselves with attacking him at a distance—as if they had known it might be dangerous to follow him into the barn.
The boy had tried to escape from the burning barn, on his hands and knees, in the very doorway of the barn he’d crawled, and they pelted him with rocks, jeering and hooting, and he fell back, disappeared, and walls of flame hid him from view; and the very air crackled with heat; and from out of nowhere (unless the creature had been sleeping up in the loft, and had hidden there during the stoning) there appeared, again in the doorway, a skinny yellow hound, maddened with terror, its fur licked with flames, a mutt none of the boys had ever seen before, obviously a stray, and quite spontaneously they stoned it, and drove it back, and they could see it bounding, in flames, from side to side, and they could hear its paincrazed cries for some minutes—until at last it was silent.
They backed away from the burning barn, suddenly exhausted.
“That dog,” said Yolande tonelessly. “Where did that dog come from . . .?”
The fire burnt noisily, great billowing clouds of smoke rose into the air, and the orangish flames towered above the tallest of the trees.
“I didn’t see any dog,” one of the boys said.
“There was a dog. A dog in there. That was a dog. . . .”
“I saw a dog. I don’t know where the hell it came from.”
They backed away, panting, wiping their faces. In all the vast landscape there was nothing so mesmerizing, so eerily beautiful, as the flaming barn.
“The stupid dog, to be in there with him,” one of the boys muttered “. . .deserved it.”
“I didn’t see any dog,” another boy said.
“Oh he was in there, all right,” another said. “He’s still in there.”
And so the first of Germaine’s tumultous birthdays came and went, and her dear cousin Yolande, whom she loved as much as she loved Christabel, and perhaps more, disappeared from Bellefleur forever: and there was a connection, there certainly was a connection, though only Germaine understood it.
She was never to forget that first birthday, of course. But then Germaine was never to forget any of her birthdays.