1 Dirty Words
As the sun crested the dusky mountain, its golden rays glazed the street-side houses. Didier Falque stood beneath a linden tree well apart from his friends Sébastien and Eva, who held hands in the tumbledown lean-to that served as a bus shelter. A third boy, Jeannot Pierrefeu, was busy kicking pebbles down the road. Jeannot could never be still or watchful like Didier. Instead he was always moving, causing small disruptions even when they were in class, and now he began to do a wild dance with his own elongated shadow as the sun’s curve rose atop the crenellated peaks like a scoop of apricot sorbet delivered in a fancy dish.
From the bus stop, their little village of Serret resembled a king’s crown inserted into the mountainside. A great stone rampart encircled houses perched like jewels one on top of the other. Above it all, a ruined garrison of white limestone shone opalescent in the early light.
Didier could smell the fresh scent of buds that had recently
appeared in the trees. Even a few daggerlike swards of iris now poked through the rough soil by the roadside. They all wore T-shirts that spring morning and had the same long hair in shaggy disarray that was so fashionable in the 1970s. Only Didier’s hair, wiry as steel wool, sat on his head like a helmet instead of lying smooth and flat. He pressed it with his callused fingers, hoping to coax it into place.
“Didi, have you considered ironing that bush?” Jeannot twirled annoyingly close, his big feet flipping another pebble over the gritty road. “That’s what all the girls with frizzy hair do.” Didier threw out a muscular arm, his knuckles just grazing Jeannot’s bouncing shoulder. Unlike his friend, Didier was slow on his feet and that morning the big farm boots he wore felt like they were weighted by stones.
“Stop with your little jokes, Jeannot,” Eva called from her seat in the shelter. But she smiled as she said it, knowing that it would be futile to try to stop the flow of Jeannot’s words or to quash his brimming energy. She merely wanted to spare Didier, who, though he showed a façade of brash masculine insouciance, had a sensitive side.
But Didier barely heard Eva’s plaint. Berti Perra was rounding the hill below, toting her heavy book bag, Berti whose perfect girl’s body generally left him overwhelmed with the desire to say something, anything that would make her notice him. That morning her ebony hair glowed in the sun, giving her head a golden aura like the halos on the gilded saints in the village church. She was two years younger than Didier and, like him, born into a family of vintners, but they were from different worlds. Berti’s parents,
Liliane and Clément Perra, were respected, even revered, because their well-known appellations of Côtes du Rhône wines were exported all over the world. Didier’s family barely eked out a living, though their vineyards, dotted over the hillsides in separate parcels, added up to a fairly important landholding. But their wine was considered a mere vin de table in comparison with the vintages from Domaine Petitjean, the Perras’ vineyard.
When Jeannot skipped down the road and landed directly in front of Berti, an angry flush crept up the sides of Didier’s face. He had hoped to greet her first, but Jeannot beat him to it.
“Salut, ma belle,” Jeannot said to her with a smile. “You’re late this morning.”
“We had a crisis.”
“A crisis! Was it exciting?”
“Pati appeared at breakfast with a black eye.”
“Did Philippe slug her?”
“Neither of my brothers would ever touch us!” Berti exclaimed.
Didier listened, silently wishing that he had a large family of five siblings like Berti. Perhaps the fact that he was an only child was the reason he often felt so uncomfortable with others.
“So what happened?” Jeannot asked.
“Pati says she walked into a door, but her eye was swollen closed. Maman took her to the doctor.”
Jeannot waved his hand. “This bears further investigation!” And then he put his arm around Berti’s shoulders and walked her up the hill.
Didier stood heavily in place, wishing he could enter into the conversation, but his mind went blank with the pressure of trying to think. Though all of them had known each other since they were small children, Didier was no longer interested in Berti as a schoolyard acquaintance. Whenever he had occasion to speak to her in the courtyard of the lycée, he got so excited that his voice grew louder and louder until finally he felt as if he was shouting. He knew each time that everything had come out exactly wrong when, after regarding him politely for several moments, she would give him a kind smile before turning away to join a group of friends.
Of the three boys there that morning, Didier would have been considered the handsomest if they had been lined up and compared. He was better built than willowy Sébastien and had a strong, conventionally handsome face, unlike Jeannot, whose rubbery, clownish visage went along with his buoyant spirit. For an adolescent, Didier had the demeanor of someone much older. His family, the Falques, were all dark-haired and Semitic-looking despite the fact that their forebears had been powerful bishops when Avignon and the surrounding Comtat Venaissin had belonged to the pope. Though the Falques remained important landowners, they were in reality no more than simple farmers, his parents working daily in their vineyards and small orchards like most of the other village folk. Didier had inherited the Falque family traits, coarse dark hair and a beard already thick enough that he had to shave every day. He had the high, rounded chest of a young steed and his shoulders stood out like wooden portmanteaux, broad and well defined. To Didier’s
chagrin, that manly aspect put off many of the girls at school, who seemed more attracted to the soft-skinned, fair boys like Sébastien, whose downy face and thin arms didn’t implicitly demand anything. Didier’s muscles and his shadowed jaw seemed to cry out that he would expect more from a young woman than she might be willing to give, so the girls in his class tended to behave skittishly when he was around and kept their distance.
Didier sometimes felt a little flutter of jealousy when he watched the amorous Sébastien and Eva, who had been going steady since grade school, but the two more often reminded him of simple barnyard animals the way they rubbed their faces together, emitting soft, unintelligible noises. His friend Jeannot had an easy way with girls, but they rarely took him seriously because of his unrestrained joking. Didier only cracked jokes out of frustration, generally when the afternoon mathematics course with Madame Morin had become incomprehensible. But he didn’t have the ability or desire to keep up the flow of wordplay that Jeannot so easily employed, always just on the edge of going too far. It was unfair that Jeannot so effortlessly got good grades and seemed to always have the teachers on his side despite his irreverence, while Didier was accused of laziness and inattention, especially in trigonometry class, ruled over by the exacting Madame Morin. But being called lazy was better than being accused of being slow, something of which he had a horror because in his young heart he knew it was probably true, at least as far as school was concerned. Even if he had wanted to, he couldn’t have spent more time at his books because he had chores on the farm
and his afternoons and evenings were spent outside in the vineyards, spraying, trimming, pruning, or harvesting, depending on the season. More than anything he loved his father’s tractor, loved the noise of the gears shifting, the big tires crushing rock and stone into the clay of the rough roads and field tracks. He adored noise and enjoyed the booming of his own voice that he exercised by hollering loudly above the sound of the tractor as if he was in competition with the roaring engine itself.
With the exception of the gang on the morning bus, Didier didn’t have many friends. Boys his age didn’t particularly interest him. The girls in his class, however, and the others at school, older or younger, held a definite fascination. He preferred dark-haired girls, and above all, Berti Perra, whose shining black waves fell beneath her shoulders. His youthful ardor kept him interested in the goings-on of most of the girls, but he knew he was wasting his life at school and wished to be out in the real world, where real things might happen to him.
That morning when the bus arrived, Jeannot pulled Berti next to him and Didier groaned softly as he slid by himself into a seat by the window. Blooming apple trees lined the route to school, and in the distance Didier saw the mother of a former schoolmate wheeling a bicycle by the side of the road as she made her way up a steep hill. She was wearing a skirt, and through the school-bus window Didier noticed that she had nice legs in addition to a wild twist of black hair, thick as a pony’s mane, unsuccessfully bound by a loose cotton scarf. When she stepped back to watch the bus go by, her eyes met Didier’s. She raised her hand in a
wave and gave him a dazzling, openmouthed smile that revealed pointy white teeth like those of a fox. Sabine Dombasle. Surprised by her warm greeting, Didier inadvertently lifted his own arm in response, but then quickly lowered it, hoping that no one had seen.
Sabine Dombasle’s son, Manu, had dropped out of the lycée two years before and now worked in his father’s vineyard, just the way Didier would work full-time for his father after he graduated. But the families, both winegrowers, weren’t friends due to a land dispute several years before.
“Bruno Dombasle has gone and planted half a hectare of vines on that little bout of land we own by the forest on the Plaine du Diable,” Didier’s father, Guillaume, had told the town’s notary, who acted as the local lawyer when property was involved. But after carefully going through the necessary deeds and documents, the notary admitted he couldn’t be truly sure of the actual boundary that marked the edge of each family’s terrain. There had been an unfriendly back-and-forth for several years, and finally, after a bitter wrangle, Didier’s father had grudgingly ceded the land to Dombasle.
Nearly seven years later, the families still didn’t speak. But Didier would nod when he saw Manu or his parents. The Dombasles had well-located vineyards that were, for the first time, bringing in real money. Because of his expanding sales, the paterfamilias, Bruno, suddenly found himself able to indulge his passions. Leaving Manu in charge, he had begun to travel to central France to fish, and in game season he visited various places in Eastern Europe where deer and other wildlife were plentiful. Still, the
Dombasles lived like most farmers in a ramshackle stone house beneath the village rampart. Manu had recently moved into the family’s grange, located in a copse of live-oak trees on the plain. In front of his parents’ house, a morning-glory vine twisted up a drainpipe, the sole floral ornament, as Sabine was not a gardener and didn’t care for flowers. Every spring, the same plant reseeded with no one’s help and covered the façade with a generous array of dark indigo blooms.
Getting off the bus that day, Didier couldn’t understand the feeling of happiness that pervaded him. Maybe it was just the beautiful morning, the warm sun beating on his shoulders, the girls who made their way through the enclosed courtyard dressed in their light cottons. But when Jeannot came up behind him and, in the high, squeaky voice of a mewling baby, said, “Maman! Maman!” Didier realized that he must have witnessed Sabine Dombasle’s wave and his own impulsive response. In a rush of shame, the truth came to him; it had been Sabine’s gesture that had been the reason for his nebulous thrill and now it had all been destroyed, trampled beneath the feet of the joker, Jeannot, who would henceforth give him no peace. But Jeannot didn’t mention it again that day and Didier felt relieved, hoping his friend had forgotten the incident.
It was odd that in the days that followed, Sabine Dombasle, whom he’d never noticed in particular, seemed to be constantly out and about in the village. One afternoon he saw her sitting at the door of the tea shop near the central fountain, whose grotesque heads spouted forth water fed by mountain springs. Sabine’s white legs were crossed and Didier
saw a flash of pale thigh as he passed on the way to his father’s field just beyond the town.
“Didi, how do you manage to work so hard and go to school too?” she asked him. “My son, Manu, never could!” Didier shrugged, not sure what to say. “Why don’t you sit down a minute. Here, have a piece of cake.” Sabine held out her plate to him. He shook his head, and mumbled something about no time. She smiled and tilted her face up at him, revealing her sharp foxy teeth, and Didier felt he’d made a mistake, as he would have enjoyed eating the cake and passing a few moments with her. But he’d missed the opportunity and it was too late to say yes.
When he was working, especially on weekends, he often saw Sabine in her garden above, hanging up laundry or slashing back spring flowers and blooming bushes with a small scythe. Sometimes she simply leaned over the parapet, gazing into the distance, but Didier had the feeling that her eyes were often directed right at him.
Toward the end of April, Didier spent all of Saturday morning in the vineyards. There was spraying to be done and his father helped him to fill the enormous metal container attached to the back of the tractor that dispensed what was needed to treat the newly budded grapes. By midday, he’d completed about a third of the work to be done, so at lunchtime he parked the tractor at the edge of their property just below the village. He decided to walk up through town and then descend the cobbled streets through the ancient Porte de la Bise. In the old days, the arched stone gateway had not only been closed and locked at night to keep out marauders, it also helped to block the fierce mistral,
the buffeting wind of the north that threatened to sweep away everything in its path. The mistral was called la bise, the kiss, and the old, north-facing gate had been named after it. That day, his mother, Patou, had told him that she would leave his lunch in the oven since she and his father would be out. As he mounted the steep hill, Didier guessed the meal would be the cassoulet made with beans and preserved goose they’d eaten the night before, and his empty stomach twisted in anticipation.
He passed by the Dombasles’ long stone farmhouse. The dried-up stems of last year’s morning glory would soon be replaced by a new young vine that had already sprouted and was twisting up the base of the metal drainpipe. As he made his way up the dirt track, the farmhouse door opened and Sabine appeared in the dark rectangle of the embrasure.
“Salut, Didier,” she said to him.
“Salut,” he replied. Sabine’s hair, bound by no scarf that day, was loose and wild. She wore a light white shift that in the shadow could have been a nightgown or even an underthing. As he slowed, his shoulders seemed to turn of their own accord toward her and he noticed her feet shod in lavender espadrilles. His eyes rose up her nicely shaped legs, over the luminous shift, and then to the pale face surrounded by the lion’s mane of pitch-black hair.
“I’ve been watching you,” she said. “You always work so hard.”
“There’s a lot to do,” Didier replied.
“I’ve made strawberry tartlettes. Come in for a second and have some,” she said, stepping back. “You must be hungry.”
He jerked his head, indicating the uphill climb. “I’m on my way home for lunch.”
“All right, then, I’ll give you one to take with you.” She opened her mouth and her teeth were once again revealed in that dazzling, eager smile. Sabine stepped back to make room for him as he walked through the doorway. When she closed the door behind him, only a gray, filtered light came through the shuttered windows, the air thick with an aroma of warm fruit and honey. Sabine turned and put her hands on his shoulders. “You’ve turned into a real man, Didier,” she said. “The girls must all be after you.” He shook his head, trying to think of how he might respond, but nothing came. She ran her hands slowly down his chest, still smiling.
Didier stepped back and stammered, “Where is your husband . . . Monsieur Dombasle?”
“Bruno? He’s fishing in the Morvan. He comes back Wednesday.” She again approached, letting her hands glide over Didier’s chest. Though he felt a swell of desire, Didier turned away and in two steps found himself in front of the doorway, his hand already on the iron latch.
“I better go,” he told her.
“All right,” said Sabine. “But come back later for your dessert. It will be even better when it’s cool.” Sabine again gave him her strange smile and Didier opened the heavy timbered door and let himself out onto the street.
When he returned to the field that afternoon, Didier kept glancing up at the Dombasle house. His work made him breathe deep and he smelled the earth release a living scent as he broke up clods of clayey soil with his heavy-soled boots while moving down the rows of vines. He became
aware of the wild thyme that plunged long roots into the dry earth and now, blooming a delicate purple, released its perfume along with that of rosemary and other herbs that grew hither and thither on the rough ground. In late afternoon when the sun was low, a breeze blew up over the plain and there came a chilly bite, but Didier didn’t notice it. He felt only the exiguous rays of the sun that pulsed around him, over the vines, up onto the hillside and the house on the hill where the shutters remained shut tight.
The innate politeness of a child made Didier wonder for a moment if he should stop at Sabine’s on the way home to pick up the dessert she had offered. But then his body, which still felt the sensation of her hands upon his chest, told him that it was prudent to stay away. When he passed near the old grange where Manu now lived, he realized that his former schoolmate was just two years older than he was, and the pleasant flicker of desire that had flamed for a moment sputtered with the thought that Sabine was old enough to be his own mother. As twilight descended he took the long way around through vineyards and olive groves, then up the dirt path that ran beneath the ramparts so as not to pass before her door.
The following Saturday, Didier found himself in a different patch of vines. He’d been put to work attaching young stems to wire leads that his father had installed that week. He was bent over the lowest rung when, along with a rustle, there came a glimpse of something pink and he stood to find Sabine next to him. This time her black hair was pulled back and twisted in a shiny clip and she was dressed in rosy cotton with a print of tiny flowers. Her
white throat looked like the pale breast of a wild bird and he felt that he could see the flutter of her pulse upon it.
“You never came to eat the dessert I made,” she said. “I had to eat it myself.”
“I’m sorry. I forgot.”
“Never mind. It’s funny, I hate to cook, but I enjoy making pastry. And with Bruno away so often, I don’t have to make dinner for anyone, so I eat pâtisserie instead. I suppose I’m just an indolent housewife. Here.” She lifted a package wrapped in white linen out of her satchel. “I brought you a petit goûter. Just a little snack.” She unfolded the linen and held out a square of chocolate cake. “I thought maybe you didn’t care for tarts, so I decided to tempt you with something else.”
He took it from her, feeling strangely exposed alone with her there in the field. Then he lifted it and took a bite. At first, his mouth was very dry and he wondered if he could manage to swallow, but quickly the unctuousness of the rich chocolate made his salivary juices flow and he smiled with pleasure.
“Bon,” she said before she turned away. “I just wanted to be sure that I hadn’t lost my touch.”
“Thank you,” said Didier politely, his mouth still full of cake. But by then she was at the end of the row of vines where a red rosebush was covered with just-opening buds, and she didn’t look back.
In May came the long weekends celebrating the various religious holidays, but he never saw Sabine. Perhaps she had gone off with her husband somewhere. He often spied Manu working in distant fields. School was still on for another
month, but it felt like summer and Didier had trouble concentrating.
“Monsieur Falque, are you dreaming or are you completing those mathematical exercises?” asked Madame Morin one hot afternoon when everyone couldn’t help but gaze out the window at the pure blue sky rather than keeping their heads down and grinding away at the quiz she’d given them. His friend Jeannot snickered. Didier made a few marks by the equations, but the numbers seemed to him nothing more than garbled nonsense.
One night when he’d finished his homework and there was nothing to do, he noticed that even though it was nearly nine o’clock, it was still light, so he went for a walk. He took the gravelly, zigzag path up the mountainside to the ruined garrison at the top of the town. Beneath a half-moon, the white stone edifice looked gaunt as a haggard face, making for an eerie feeling way up there in the deserted wastes where no grass grew. Didier careened down the slippery slope of the opposite path and found himself in the church square where egg-shaped river stones embedded in the sidewalk were arranged in a fan shape that resembled the half-moon in the sky above. He descended a steep alleyway until he was on the curving road that looked over several hectares of his family’s vineyards, the ones that abutted the Dombasles’. There he leaned against the stone wall and gazed down into the valley. No one was out. The church bell tolled the hour and Didier noticed a sliver of light coming from the terraced garden that extended from the side of the Dombasle house. A door thrown open to the night. He sauntered down the street to take a closer look, telling himself
that it was nothing more than idle curiosity that led him to see if someone was out and about. But when he reached the edge of the garden, the door made a creaking sound as it was pushed wide open.
“Why, Didi, what are you doing out so late?” Sabine’s voice was deep, as if she hadn’t spoken in a while. She emerged slowly from the doorway, once again dressed in something pale that skimmed close to her body. Her pile of dark hair blended in with the vines and bushes that grew in the garden behind her.
“Just taking a walk,” he said. He put his hands into the pockets of his blue jeans and closed them into fists, ashamed of his rough workingman’s fingers.
“Well then, come in for a moment,” she said. “Climb over the wall there into the garden.” At the end of the garden the wall wasn’t high, but it was still a drop of a few feet, so he swung his legs over and jumped. A thorned quince tree grazed his arm, leaving several razor-thin scratches, but he ignored them.
“Come,” said Sabine. She cupped her hand and motioned for him, and he entered through the door into a cellar.
It was dark and he tripped going down a step he hadn’t seen, bumping into Sabine. A wisp of her wild hair brushed against his face, but she pushed him away as if he was a nuisance. Then she went up a flight of stone steps and he followed, wondering all the while if he should turn around and exit through the garden the way he had come. But seeing a dim light through a doorway above, he passed into what looked like a hallway. Then she turned.
“I don’t think you should be here at all,” she said. “I don’t know why you came.” She put her hand on his chest as if to push him again, but her touch was electric. In an automatic motion, his arms went around her, lifting her up, and they were moving down the hallway into the kitchen, she up against the kitchen table making small cries and then sighing deeply. At first, he thought he’d made a mess of things, he’d been so excited. But he kept kissing her and she helped them both undress, and then she took her time and directed him and he did his best to follow.
It was close to midnight when he came to his senses.
“Your parents might ask where you’ve been,” Sabine told him as he pulled on his clothes. “I think you should tell them you ran into a friend. Who could that be?” She tapped the table with the flat of her hand. “Maybe Jeannot Pierrefeu. Your parents aren’t particular friends with his parents, so that should be a safe little lie.”
But that night he didn’t see his parents when he got home. Didier couldn’t sleep from pure excitement and wonder as to how this remarkable thing had happened to him.
After that, he never got through his work in the fields without certain prescribed delays, and thanks to Sabine’s suggestions, he always had a credible excuse. He amazed himself as the false tales slipped off his tongue. His parents never questioned him at all.
But the two of them had to be careful, more than careful. Sabine impressed that upon him. There was her husband, Bruno, who, above all, must be kept in the dark, and that also included her son, Manu, and all the villagers who spent
their days looking for the slightest thing out of the ordinary that might be interesting to pass on as gossip.
At the edge of a stand of live-oak trees perched on a cliff about a kilometer from the village stood an abandoned cabanon, really just a stone shack with a door. They began to meet there, each taking a separate route through the woods so no one would see them coming or going together. Sabine brought a thick comforter that Didier hid up in the rafters. The cabanon had no lights and no window and they didn’t dare leave the door ajar, so Didier supplied a small flashlight that they tilted up against the rough wall when they were together. Sometimes Sabine would grab it and move the spotlight over her body or dance, slowly swirling it over her belly, her breasts, her hungry mouth. Standing over him, she would open her legs so he could glimpse the pink madder of her sex that glistened like a budding rose under rainfall. In his overwhelming desire, Didier would have liked to crush her to him, to squeeze her and kiss her hard, his natural inclination, but he learned to be gentle because they couldn’t risk the tiniest bruise or mark, anything that might give them away. The gentleness was intoxicating, Sabine a perishable flower in his hands. Her breasts were soft and white with translucent marks like pale veins. She’d had a son, after all. Sometimes he playfully swung them back and forth when she leaned over on top of him, but she didn’t like that. “Don’t mock me, Didi,” she’d say. “Am I just an old woman to you?” And Didier would pull her to him and tell her she was everything he had ever imagined a woman could be.
During their meetings, her teeth and lips were like a
drug for him. He stuck his fingers into her mouth and rubbed the sharp white points of her canines. He couldn’t stop kissing her. And that mouth called him all sorts of things. At first, it was just mon petit trésor or silly nicknames she made up. But then came other names, dirty names and epithets that bent him more than ever to her will. Her deep growling voice showered him with curses. The foulest language, combined in phrases he’d never even thought of, began to be a potent force that made him desire her all the more.
One afternoon, as Didier was leaving school, a woman dressed in a black hijab with a facial veil beckoned to him. He turned expecting someone behind him to react, one of the Arab kids, but she moved her hand quickly at him, indicating that he should come. She was carrying a basket of ripe cherries and he thought that maybe she wanted to sell them. But when he came closer he saw her eyes and knew that it was Sabine. He followed her to a parking lot across the way and they drove up into the hills on one of the rough fire trails where cars rarely went.
“You’re taking a big chance,” he said to her, uneasy at her boldness. “If anyone sees your car, they’ll know it’s you.” She pulled off her veil and laughed at him. Her teeth glinted whitely in the bright sunshine and she nearly drove them both off the road when he threw his arms around her and kissed her neck in complete abandon.
Later, under cover of a huge pine tree whose long boughs brushed the ground, Didier said, “What are we going to do? It was you who warned me not to take chances and now you’re the one being reckless.”
“Bruno’s away again. If we’re careful it will be all right.”
“But we’re not careful,” he said, indicating their half-naked bodies lying on the pine needles in full view of anyone who came close enough and had eyes to see.
And then she rolled toward him and out of that mouth came a song of the coarsest, most foul language. “Putain, fils de merde, stupid prick with your filthy scrub-brush hair.” Despite the words, her voice sounded to him like mournful cajoling, like begging. And though a part of him was disgusted, making him wonder if he should think seriously about ending what was between them, he found himself completely subject to her.
“Our Didier has become a contemplative type. Have you noticed?” Jeannot remarked at the bus stop one morning. “He’s always looking away, his nose up in the air, as if he’s considering some grand subject. Or is he simply musing about driving tractors and pressing grapes, the banal concerns of a fledgling vintner?”
Berti smiled at him and said, “That’s exactly what Didi should be thinking about!”
Didier bumped his shoulder against Jeannot’s without taking his hands out of his pockets.
“What’s your opinion, Sébastien?” Jeannot asked.
“Maybe he’s sorry to see school end for the summer,” Sébastien replied. “He’s going to miss Madame Morin. She’s given you how many detentions this semester, Didi? Maybe our math teacher has a perverse attraction to you.”
At the word perverse, Didier’s eyes darted from Sébastien to Jeannot. But they seemed intent on the discussion of Madame Morin, who didn’t bother anymore to ask Didier
if he understood the mathematical equations. Didier grinned guiltily at the boys, feeling relieved that his friends were off the scent.
“Maybe Didier is simply turning into a man,” said Eva kindly. “Not like you two perpetual infants.” The boys laughed, and Didier found himself scanning her face, afraid that maybe perceptive Eva might be the one to have guessed something. He was disturbed to find that he felt afraid.
The summer came and Didier spent all day in the fields. Even though there was a lot to do, he saw more of Sabine than ever. They met in the little cabanon even more frequently and Didier often had to lie about his whereabouts. On July 14, the celebration of the storming of the Bastille, there was the usual village fête. It was held in the main square that was surrounded by ancient sycamore trees whose leafy shade extended over the entire area. Everyone dined at long tables covered with strips of brown paper. A stage had been constructed for the animateur, who stood above the dancers and sometimes sang, but mostly played tapes that included everything from the paso doble and Edith Piaf to American rock and roll.
Before dinner that evening, everyone stood around drinking wine supplied by the local cooperative. Except for Didier’s parents, who didn’t enjoy dancing and never came to celebrate the Quatorze, most of the townspeople were there along with a smattering of tourists who had paid their twenty francs for the night’s entertainment. Didier didn’t drink except for a rare half glass of wine that his father offered when an exceptional vintage was opened for a special occasion. Instead he drank Cocas with Jeannot, Berti, and
Eva while standing off to the side of the stage where the music was loudest.
Didier spotted Sabine as soon as she appeared on the square. She wore white, the color that suited her best. That night, her hair swirled up into a knot of curls at the top of her head. She sat down on one of the folding chairs at the end of a table while her husband, Bruno, elbowed his way to the bar to get drinks. Sabine’s eyes met Didier’s, but she had warned him that if they looked at each other at a public gathering, it would be quickly obvious to any bystander that there was something between them, so Didier reluctantly broke eye contact and let his gaze wander over the crowd. At the bar, Bruno turned around, carrying a yellow pastis in one fist and a wineglass of rosé in the other. He surprised Didier not only by looking straight at him, but by advancing in his direction.
“Bonsoir,” Bruno said when he reached Didier. Dombasle was on the corpulent side with a wide body, yet he was fit, tanned, and muscular. He had short gray hair and a direct gaze from the brown, slightly bloodshot eyes that were common among vintners who spent long days under the bright sun of the Midi.
“My wife tells me that you are always very polite to her despite that minor disagreement between our families over property. Manu likes you too.” Bruno kept his eyes on Didier. “It seems stupid that there’s an animus between us.” Didier gave the man a half nod in return, fearing Dombasle might be aiming to ensnare him in some terrible trap, and he forced himself not to glance toward Sabine. “Maybe we can break the silence.” Bruno smiled. “D’accord?”
Didier smiled back at the man, but felt it must look more like a grimace. So he asked, “Do you think that would be a good idea?”
“You’ll spend your life here, a vintner like your father and me. There shouldn’t be an unnatural rupture between us.” Bruno raised the glass of pastis toward Didier, a gesture meant to end all hostility.
“What was that about?” asked Jeannot when Bruno made his way back to the table where Sabine sat waiting.
Didier shrugged, feigning calm, but his heart was pounding. He took a deep breath and kept his eyes on the stage, where the disc jockey was inviting people to dance a lively polka. Didier gulped down his soda and watched as an elderly couple cavorted across the floor.
As the summer progressed and the hot days concluded in long, lazy evenings, Sabine became even more demanding. Didier was often in view working in the fields beneath her kitchen window, and that seemed to provoke her boldness. Sometimes she’d even walk by when he was in the fields and signal for him to join her at the cabanon. Whenever her husband was away on one of his fishing trips, she insisted that Didier come to her house.
“I don’t think this is safe,” he told her one evening when they were naked together in the dark, shuttered salon. “What if Manu or anyone else saw me coming in? That would be hell for both of us.” But Sabine seemed strangely oblivious.
“Do you love your husband?” Didier asked her.
Sabine shrugged. “I’m comfortable with him.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” asked Didier.
“It means there are advantages to being his wife.” Unlike many of the women in the village, Sabine didn’t work and Didier wondered if that was what she meant. Bruno was quite a wealthy man. Didier knew how many hectares of vines he had and what that meant in terms of number of bottles sold, the best of his stock often shipped overseas. On the other hand, perhaps once the passion was gone, couples became pragmatic and were content to settle for something less than they’d originally hoped for. But for the first time Didier thought Sabine might have a hard, empty side to her that he had heretofore been unwilling to admit. He wondered if she repeated the same dirty phrases to Bruno that she said to him. Or perhaps it was Bruno who had taught those words to her.
“Are there advantages to being with me too?” he asked, hoping to get a word of affection from her.
She rolled toward him and ran her teeth over his chin as if to carve something there. Then she moved on top of him and said, “You are my enormous advantage.” And she began to whisper to him, foul things that mixed up into something entirely new and exotic, like a strangely perfumed flower, and he was swept away by her as he always was.
In the autumn, school recommenced. It would be Didier’s final year at the lycée, the grade called terminale. Unlike Jeannot, he wouldn’t be continuing his education. There was no reason to. But sometimes he thought about getting away from Sabine. He still desired her more than ever, but he had a feeling their luck was running out. How much
easier it would be if the following autumn he could simply go away to university in Montpellier or up to Grenoble like some of his fellow classmates. At times he couldn’t believe he and Sabine hadn’t already been caught. He imagined that some people might actually know about their liaison, but were keeping it to themselves. A word from just one of them could bring the whole world crashing down upon Sabine, her family, his parents, and himself.
One evening in late October, over the Toussaint holiday, when the Day of the Dead was remembered by visits to the cemetery, Didier was at Sabine’s house. Bruno was away again, this time hunting in Romania, and Didier had told his parents he was spending the evening with Jeannot. He and Sabine would have hours together in rare tranquillity. Of course, they kept the lights off and the door locked so no one would know that Sabine was at home. She had made a pain d’épices, a seasonal treat, and the house smelled of honey and spice, reminding him of the first time he had entered it. He began to kiss her as soon as he came into the hallway. There was no reason to wait, so they went directly into the bedroom, though Sabine often preferred other shadowy places in which to fulfill her needs.
The shutters were closed, but the windows were open, letting in the sultry air of the mild October night. Sabine was more ardent that ever, perhaps encouraged in her abandon by the clement evening and Didier’s obvious desire. She called him names and danced around him, she knelt on his chest and said every foul word he had ever heard plus others that mixed nonsense with filth, all said in that plaintive tone of hers, and Didier couldn’t help but respond. She wouldn’t
have had to do anything to make him desirous. The way she moved, looked at him, touched him, was enough. But the words were part of her theater and she created a private place that enclosed just them with her whispered, low-spoken, sometimes cried-out gutter words that made her seem to be at once violated and the violator. But he didn’t mind. She met demands that he hadn’t even dreamed he had. He could make love to her for hours, which he did without restraint because Sabine always was ready to receive him.
Around midnight he left her. They had agreed that his exit would be through the wild, overgrown garden, as he was less likely to be seen there than if he slipped out the front door. Even though winter was on its way, the air still held its last breath of summer, and as he passed through the village there lingered the smell of old roses that hung down in profusion over the stony walls of gardens belonging to high village houses. Sabine had told Didier to come the next night, Saturday, after dark. “Don’t forget,” she said, caressing his chest. “Come through the garden.”
In the morning, there was plenty of work for Didier even though the grapes had all been harvested. One last special collection was to be done, the grapillage. If there were enough grapes still left on the vines, his father would make a sweet wine from the slightly wrinkled, heavily sugared fruit. Didier stayed out all morning. The vineyard he was working in was on the other side of the village, not near Sabine’s house, but on the slope below the cemetery, where a man was already selling pots of chrysanthemums that would be purchased by people visiting their family
graves on the following day, the Feast of All Souls. His mother had given him a sandwich wrapped in paper for lunch. As he ate he wished he could drop by Sabine’s, but it would be too risky. He thought about how long this could go on between the two of them. Sabine would be turning forty soon. That meant she was nearly an old lady and he worried she might not be so interested in him if her desire for sex waned with age. As for himself, he couldn’t imagine not being completely enchanted by her and he hoped she would always respond to him when he lifted her up, her strong white calves tight around him and everything radiating pleasure.
That night his parents went to dinner with friends in the valley. Didier ate his meal alone and then waited until well past sundown. He took the low route around the town, down through the patches of vineyard that belonged to many neighbors who had owned the land for generations, the Viguiers, the Doumencs, the Roux, the Pelouzes, and finally, the large parcel that belonged to his family, the Falques. When he reached the curve in the road that revealed Sabine’s farmhouse above, he saw with shock that the hulking mass was lit up like an ocean liner on a black sea. Every window blazed, even the ones upstairs, and the door to the garden, brightly illuminated by a spotlight he’d never noticed, was ajar. Didier quickly crossed the road into a low grove of olive trees and crouched amid them. He thought he saw Manu peering from the garden doorway, so he backed farther behind one of the thick olive trunks, but then the young man reentered the house and the door closed with a clack.
After waiting nearly an hour, but seeing nothing, Didier stood up. If he walked by the house it wouldn’t be a crime. No one could accuse him of anything. Even if someone spotted him it wouldn’t look strange, a young man out by himself on a Saturday night. Nothing unusual in that. So he began to slowly wend his way up the hill. When he arrived at the front of the house, the windows remained as brightly illuminated as ever and he surreptitiously glanced inside, trying to see if Sabine was there. The living room window was almost completely blocked by the morning glory that had twirled its way around the shutters, still alive even at the very end of the season. The flowers closed at nighttime and in the light that came from the interior they looked like shriveled insects. He saw no one. Neither was there a soul in the garden, nor anyone near the thorny quince. He continued on up the hill, remembering the day he’d first gone into Sabine’s house and wondering what could possibly be happening at the Dombasles’. And then, coming down the steep path before him came his friend Jeannot’s parents, Louis and Marie Rose Pierrefeu. Louis, who was the garde champêtre, the village policeman, had his arm linked with his wife’s as they proceeded down the hill.
“Hello, Didi,” said Madame Pierrefeu when they came abreast of him. “What are you doing up here so late?”
“Oh, I had something . . .” He made a vague gesture toward the vineyard below.
“Ah.” She nodded.
And then Louis Pierrefeu said, “There’s been some bad news. Have you heard?” When Didier shook his head, Louis abruptly blurted, “Bruno Dombasle has been killed.”
“What?” asked Didier, hardly able to comprehend what Louis had told him.
“Yes, in Romania. Apparently he was shot while hunting. An accident.”
“Does the family know?”
“A telegram was delivered earlier. It’s a terrible thing. And can you imagine that all this is happening just at Toussaint!”
Didier stood there, his hands cold as rocks, his bare arms covered with goose bumps. He wanted to rush into the house to grab Sabine and run away with her forever. But instead he stood immobile in front of the Pierrefeus. Finally, Marie Rose patted him on the shoulder and told him to go home.
Unable to sleep that night, Didier fell into a deep doze just before dawn. When he came downstairs his parents were finishing their breakfast. His mother poured a splash of coffee into a bowl and then added hot milk before placing it in front of him.
“Have you heard about Bruno Dombasle?” his mother asked. When he nodded she said, “Poor Sabine. I’ll visit her later today.”
“Don’t be sentimental, Patou,” Didier’s father said. “Dombasle probably deserved it.” His father broke a baguette in two and divided it down the middle with his pocketknife.
“You hated him that much?” asked Didier, shocked to hear his father speak that way.
“Of course not. Even after the land dispute, I never hated him,” said his father. “I simply did not respect him. It’s well known that he’s
been playing around with women for years. Apparently, one of the jealous husbands might have been along on this hunting trip in Romania. People are saying that it was no accident.”
“You mean someone murdered him?”
“Could be,” said his father, carefully smoothing butter onto the crust with the thick steel blade. “It wouldn’t be the first time a thing like this has happened. Years ago Dominique de Laubry disappeared hunting up on Mont Ventoux. Some say he’d been having an affair with someone else’s wife. Anyway, everyone knows Dombasle’s been with a string of women.”
Didier turned to his mother and abruptly asked, “What time are you going up to see them?” He didn’t dare use Sabine’s name.
“I thought about eleven o’clock.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“There’s no reason any Falque has to go pay his respects to the Dombasle family,” said Didier’s father.
Patou pulled out her chair and sat down with an angry grunt. “You’re very wrong about that, Guillaume. We’ve known these people forever. They’re our close neighbors. It’s the correct thing to do.”
Didier shaved, showered, and dressed in a jacket that he hadn’t worn since the previous Easter. It pulled at his shoulders and his arms bulged awkwardly against the fabric. He and his mother walked up the hill, through the Porte de la Bise and down to the other side of the village together. At the Dombasles’, Manu opened the door to them. In the main salon the windows were open and the shutters thrown wide.
Didier hardly recognized the place in the glaring light, he was so used to the gloaming that Sabine preferred, the shutters closed to block out both night and day. There were a few people sitting in chairs against the wall—vintners, their wives, and some others from the nearby town of Beaucastel—muttering softly among themselves. Didier didn’t see Sabine.
“Will your father be brought back to the house?” Patou asked Manu in a low voice. Manu looked at them both and then he blurted, “His head’s practically shot off. They’ll keep him at the funeral home until the burial.” An anguished sigh escaped from Didier, who covered his mouth as bile rose into his throat.
“Is your mother resting?” asked Patou.
With a motion of his chin, Manu indicated she was upstairs. “She didn’t sleep last night.”
“That’s understandable,” said Patou. “Please let Sabine know that I’d like to help her in any way that I can. If you would like something to eat, I’m cooking a daube today. I can bring it up this evening.”
Manu bowed his head and said, “That’s kind of you, Madame Falque.”
“Call me Patou,” she said.
Didier glanced at his mother. She was tall and slender with her hair cut short so that it surrounded her head in a burst of mahogany curls. He realized that she was still pretty. Had Manu noticed? What if he found her attractive? Didier wondered with horror what would be the circumstances in which his mother might succumb to a man’s attentions.
As he turned away it occurred to him that Sabine was quite different from a gentle woman like his mother, and that, in truth, his lover was a mystery to him.
Didier wished he could sit down in a chair and loll against the wall like the other visitors. But the idea of seeing Sabine was unbearable. Still, he wished he could wait there all day, bide his time, breathe in the same air that she was breathing. Maybe he’d hear her footsteps, see her shapely calves on the staircase, her knees, the curve of her hip. How would her face look if she saw him there?
His mother put her hand through his arm and they walked to the door. Was it possible that she could have perceived his pain and desolation?
“It’s a terrible thing, a violent death like that,” Patou said when they were outside on the street. “It’s a stigma that the family will have a time getting over.”
“Does Papa really believe someone killed Dombasle out of jealousy?”
“That’s what the rumors are in the village,” said Patou.
“But who would know the truth?” asked Didier. Was it possible that everyone in their little village really knew the totality of everybody else’s business; that the Dombasles, both Bruno and Sabine, were involved with other people? Did they know that he was one of those people? Didier felt a frosty rivulet of sweat run down his rib cage.
“Your father predicts that by tomorrow we will have some news,” Patou continued. “That’s when the other men on the hunting trip get back. They’ve been delayed by the Romanian police.”
When they returned to their house, the streets were deserted. Didier sat outside on the fieldstone stoop. There was no one he wanted to see, but he didn’t want to be inside, so he took his chances sitting in the shadow of the doorway. Anyone might walk by. It could be a painful encounter or it could be a pleasant diversion. That’s the way it was in the village: you never knew who might stumble around the corner. Didier didn’t care. But in his heart he wished that Sabine would appear in front of him wearing her lavender espadrilles, dressed in that light shift, with a smile on her face and her pretty teeth gleaming.
Bruno Dombasle was laid to rest in the village cemetery. The stone tombs, all aboveground because of the unbreakable mountain rock beneath, were covered with a profusion of violent colors, pots of magenta, gold, white, and orange chrysanthemums, the floral offering of choice for the Day of the Dead.
Didier had installed himself beside the wrought-iron gates at the entrance. He refused to attend the service in the small chapel into which his mother had slipped to pay her respects. He couldn’t bear the idea of being crushed in with others to watch Sabine seated at the foot of her dead husband’s coffin.
Soon enough, Manu came up the hill pushing a rolling catafalque along with a few family friends. Sabine walked just behind the simple oaken box that held Bruno Dombasle’s remains. She wore a silvery dress that shimmered
and reminded Didier of the defenseless belly of a fish. A black jacket covered her pale arms and shoulders, while her face, strained and bloodless, was bent forward. Was it sadness or the shame of facing everyone who knew that Bruno had been an unfaithful husband?
When the coffin turned upward and passed through the gates, the gravel shifted with a dry crunch beneath the skidding wheels of the cart and Sabine looked up. Her eyes zigged over Didier’s face and her dry lips parted for an instant before she looked away. Didier felt his hands clench. He wanted to touch her, to stroke her arm, to grab her to him and make love to her until she forgot, until they both forgot about the horror of the situation in its entirety. But he suspected it would no longer be possible to make a connection, or even to extend a sympathetic hand, and certainly not possible to achieve any sort of abandon together.
One of the Dombasle cousins, a mason who lived on the other side of the Rhône, had already chiseled open the edges of the flat stone that held the blackened coffins of Bruno Dombasle’s parents. The mortuary attendants slid in the casket next to the others, and after a few brief words from the priest, the mason began to cement the opening shut again.
Didier went up to the village each night, over the cobbled stones and down the long street to the ruined tower that loomed just above the Dombasle house. He could glimpse through the lit windows that people were there. He never saw Sabine, though once he spotted her speeding down the mountainside in Bruno’s car. Sometimes in the
evening he would perch in the field below looking up at the house and the darkened garden hoping for some sign. Once, when it was late and the air had turned wintery, he found the place in total darkness and imagined her shut up inside. He waited in the deep shadow of the stone wall and then jumped into the garden, where he dared to make a few birdlike calls, calls that had once made Sabine laugh when he’d practiced them while they were alone together. It was nearly eleven o’clock and there were no lights around him, either from the houses perched in the village above or from the valley below, and there was no response to his forlorn chirping. Didier hoisted himself over the wall and crept to Sabine’s front door, where he listened. He thought he could make out the faintest sound of music, but it could have come from somewhere else. He gave a small, hesitant knock on the door and put his ear against it again. In a moment he heard light footsteps. But the door didn’t open and there was no sound. After a moment Didier couldn’t resist and gave a harsh whisper, calling her name. When the door abruptly opened he nearly fell over the sill. There was Sabine in the darkened vestibule, her face contorted, ugly as a reptile. “Leave me alone, you little creep. Don’t come around here again! Emmerdeur.” And she slammed the door in his face.
Didier didn’t try to see her again. But he still gazed up at her shuttered windows when he was working in the fields below. There were times when he remembered with longing how she had been with him, and though he felt an overwhelming desire to try to reignite something, he stayed away.
In the New Year there was a school dance and he asked Berti Perra to go with him. She said yes and an easy friendship developed between them. They began to meet and talk together in the courtyard after school. He managed to speak to her in a normal tone, not the nervous, dominating voice that had formerly been his mode. In February, the almond trees bloomed as usual and spring came early that year.