Our farm was located some distance from the hamlet of Clos, on the fringes of the forest of Voigny, where ferns mingled with broom and beech with oak, the home of stags and wild boar. Further away were the marshlands, with their sense of peace, mediated by teal, otter, dragonfly and swan.
La Motte was fairly isolated. Our nearest neighbours, at a good half hour's walk, were the Cailleux family; the young Jeannot Cailleux was two years my junior, and I was like an elder brother to him. His parents had a dairy in the town. The grandfather, Gaston, kept bees. He had lost a leg in a sawmill accident. Further away were the Magnards: taciturn and indifferent to everything that wasn't cow, butter and fields. The father, the son, and the two grown-up daughters never spoke to anyone. Except, as Gaston Cailleux used to mutter, to state or to ask the price of something.
After that, there was nothing between La Motte and Cléry except the Monier and Simon farms, the children from which were in my class at school.
I knew the woods round about even down to the last nook and cranny. At the end of a gully in the region of the Old Spring, my uncle had helped me build a red-skin's wigwam. It was a hut made of branches and covered with oilskin, where I used to hide away with books of James Oliver Curwood, and Fenimore Cooper, to dream of Apaches and Sioux, or to defend myself to the last cartridge whilst besieged by enemy forces, always "superior in number", as was the tradition. One day in mid June, replete and dozing, I opened my eyes and saw before me a young girl. She was very fair and wore a straw hat, and she regarded me severely from under it. A patchwork of sun and shade filtered through the branches, and after all these years, it seems that this play of light and shade has never ceased around her; around Lila. In that moment, I understood neither the reason nor the nature of what I felt, but I was in a sense prepossessed. Instinctively, and under the influence of I know not what force or feebleness from within, I made a move, the definite and irrevocable nature of which I by no means understood: to this fair but severe apparition I offered a handful of strawberries. But it yielded no great success. The girl came and sat beside me, without paying the least attention to my offering, and took hold of the entire basket. And so it was that the roles were thus cast for ever. When there was nothing left but a few strawberries at the bottom, she turned to me and said, not without reproach, "They're better with sugar."
There was but one thing to do, and I didn't waste a moment. Bounding to my feet, I raced through woods and fields to la Motte, crashing into the kitchen like a canon ball. I grabbed a packet of castor sugar from the shelf, and retraced my path at no lesser speed. Still there, seated on the grass, her hat beside her, and contemplating one of God's creatures on the back of her hand, I offered her the sugar.
"I don't want it any more. But it was kind of you."
"We can leave the sugar here and come back tomorrow" I said, with the inspiration of despair.
"Maybe. What's your name?"
"Ludo. And yours?"
God's creature flew away. "We don't know each other well enough yet. Perhaps I'll tell you my name one day. You see, I'm a bit mysterious. I'm sure you'll never see me again. What do your parents do?"
"I haven't got any. I live with my uncle."
"What does he do?"
I sensed that "rural postman" wasn't quite the thing.
"He's a kite master", I said.
She appeared favourably impressed.
"What does that mean?"
"It's like a great sea captain, but in the sky."
She reflected for a moment longer, then got up.
"Maybe I'll come back tomorrow" she said. "I don't know. I'm very unpredictable. How old are you?"
"Soon, I'm going to be ten."
"Oh, you're much too young for me. I'm eleven and a half. But I do like forest strawberries. Wait for me here tomorrow at the same time. I'll come back if I've nothing better to do."
After throwing me one last severe look, she was gone.
I must have collected a good three kilos of strawberries the next day. Every few minutes I ran to see if she was there. But she didn't come that day. Nor the next. Nor the one after.
I waited each day throughout June, July, August and September. At first I collected strawberries, then the bilberries, after that mulberries and finally mushrooms. I never knew such anguish of waiting except in 1940 - 44 during the occupation, as we awaited the return of our motherland. Even when the mushrooms gave out I continued to return to the place of our meeting in the forest. The year passed, then another, and yet another, and I realised that M. Herbier wasn't entirely wrong when he warned my uncle that there was something disturbing about my memory. Amongst the Fleurys there must surely be a congenital infirmity: they lack the appeasing ability to forget. I studied, and I helped my guardian in the workshop, but few were the days when a little fair girl in a white dress didn't keep me company, her big straw hat in her hand. It was a bad case of a "surfeit of memory" as M. Herbier had justifiably described it; something from which he himself must hardly have suffered, as he carefully distanced himself from all that so ardently and dangerously claimed its place in the memory, under the Nazis. Three or four years later, I would still go out and fill my basket at the start of the strawberry season, and lie under the beeches, my hands under the nape of my neck and eyes closed, to encourage her to chance upon me. I even remembered the packet of sugar. At length, there was something in it to me of a smile. I began to understand what my uncle used to call "following the blue", and I learned to mock myself, with my "surfeit of memory".
-- oOo --