The Strawberry Thief – Joanne Harris

Friday, March 10 There’s always a moment before a storm when the wind seems to change its mind. It plays at domesticity; it flirts with the blossom on the trees; it teases the rain from the dull grey clouds. This moment of playfulness is when the wind is at its cruellest and most dangerous. Not later, when the trees fall and the blossom is just blotting-paper choking the drains and rivulets. Not when houses fall like cards, and walls that you thought were firm and secure are torn away like paper. No, the cruellest moment is always the one in which you think you might be safe; that maybe the wind has moved on at last; that maybe you can start building again, something that can’t be blown away. That’s the moment at which the wind is at its most insidious. That’s the moment where grief begins. The moment of expected joy. The demon of hope in Pandora’s box. The moment when the cacao bean releases its scent into the air: a scent of burning, and spices, and salt; and blood; and vanilla; and heartache. I used to think it was simple, that art. The making of harmless indulgences. But at last I have come to learn that no indulgence is harmless. Francis Reynaud would be proud of me.

Forty years a witch and now, at last, I have become a Puritan. Zozie de l’Alba would have understood. Zozie, the collector of hearts, whose face still comes to me, in my dreams. Sometimes I hear her voice on the wind; the sound of her shoes on the cobbles. Sometimes I wonder where she is: whether she still thinks of me. No indulgence is harmless, she knew. Power is all that counts in the end. The wind doesn’t care. The wind doesn’t judge. The wind will take whatever it can – whatever it needs – instinctively.

I was like that once, you know. Seeds on the wind, taking root, seeding again before moving on. The seeds do not stay with the parent plant. They go wherever the wind goes. Take my Anouk, now twenty-one: gone to wherever children go whenever they follow the piper. We used to be so close, she and I. We used to be inseparable. And yet I know that a child is on loan, one day to be returned to the world, to grow and to learn and to fall in love. I’d once believed she might stay here in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes; that Jeannot Drou might keep her there; that of course and the chocolaterie, and the promise of security. But it was Jean-Loup Rimbault, in Paris, who decided things.

Jean-Loup, the boy with the hole in his heart. Did Anouk fill it? All I know is she left a hole in mine; a hole that all the chocolate in Mexico could never fill; a space in the shape of a little girl with eyes as dark as the ocean. And now, my Rosette, sixteen years old, hears the voice of the wind, and I know how hungry she is; how wild, how wilful, how volatile. The wind would take her in one gust, if she were not fastened down like a sail, if I had not taken precautions. And still the wind keeps worrying at the cords that keep us safe. Still we hear its siren call. And it smells of other places. It speaks of danger and sunlight, adventure and joy. It dances through the motes of light in shades of chilli and peppercorn. It catches at the back of the throat like unexpected laughter.

And in the end it takes them all; everything you laboured for. Everything you told yourself that you could somehow take with you. And it always begins in a moment of playfulness, magic – even of joy. A moment of brightness between the clouds. A taste of sweetness; a ringing of bells. Sometimes, even a fall of snow. Snow 1 Saturday, March 11 It snowed today. A week into Lent, a miracle come early. At first I thought it was blossom. Blossom out of the bright blue sky, covering the pavements.

But there was snow on the window-sill, and crystals in the sparkling air. It could have been an Accident. But maybe it was something more. It hardly ever snows down here. It’s hardly ever cold, not even really in winter. Not like in Paris, where sometimes the Seine used to crackle with thin black ice, and I had to wear my winter coat from Hallowe’en to Eastertime. Here in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes you get cold weather for maybe a month. Frost in December. White on the fields. And then there’s the wind.

The cold north wind that always brings tears to your eyes. But today, there was snow. It’s a sign. Someone will be dead by dawn. I know a story about a girl whose mother made her out of snow. The girl is supposed to stay out of the sun, but one summer’s day she disobeys, and goes out to play with the others. Her mother looks for her everywhere. But all she finds are her clothes on the ground – BAM! – in a puddle of water. Narcisse told me that story. Narcisse, who owns the flower shop.

He’s old now, and someone else runs the shop on weekdays, but on Sundays he still comes in, and sits by the door, and watches the street, and never talks. Except sometimes to me. He says: ‘We’re the quiet ones, aren’t we, Rosette? We don’t chatter like magpies.’ That’s true. While Maman makes chocolates and talks, I prefer to sit quietly, playing with my button-box or drawing in my drawing-book. When I was small, I never talked. I sang and sometimes shouted – BAM! – or made animal noises, finger-signs or bird calls. People like birds and animals. People didn’t like me much, and so I didn’t talk to them, not even in my shadow-voice, the one I use when I’m being someone else. Instead I went into a bird, and flew very high into the clouds.

Or sometimes I was a monkey, swinging in the trees, or sometimes a dog, barking at the wind. But even then, people didn’t like me; except for Maman, and Anouk, and Roux, and my best friend JeanPhilippe Bonnet. But Maman is always working now, and Anouk is in Paris with Jean-Loup, and Roux comes and goes, but never stays long, and Jean-Philippe (whose nickname is Pilou) goes to school all week in Agen, and doesn’t want to play any more. Maman says not to worry. He hasn’t really changed all that much. But now he’s sixteen, and the other boys would laugh at him, and tease him for playing with a girl. I don’t think that’s fair. I’m not a girl. Sometimes I am a boy like Pilou. Sometimes I am a monkey, a dog.

Sometimes I am something else. But other people are different. Other people care about these things. And of course I can’t go to school. The school in Agen didn’t want me. They told Maman I wouldn’t fit in, or talk the way I was meant to. And then there was Bam, who wouldn’t behave, and makes me shout his name – BAM! And sometimes there are Accidents. And so now I learn what I can from books, and birds, and animals, and sometimes even people. People like Narcisse, and Roux, who never mind when I don’t want to talk, or when my voice isn’t a little girl’s voice, but something wild and dangerous. Maman used to tell me the story of a little girl whose voice was stolen by a witch.

The witch, who was clever and devious, used the little girl’s young, sweet voice to trick people into doing her will. Only the little girl’s shadow could speak, but it was rarely ever sweet. Instead it only told the truth, and sometimes it was merciless. You’re like that little girl , Maman said. Too wise for fools to understand. Well, I don’t know if I’m wise. But I do have a shadow-voice. I don’t use it very often, though. People don’t like hearing the truth. Even Maman prefers not to hear some of the things my shadow says.

And so I stick to signing most times, or else I don’t say anything. And if I feel my shadow-voice wanting to break free I shout – BAM! – and laugh and sing, and stamp my foot, the way we sometimes used to do to keep the wicked wind away. When the snow began to fall, Maman was working in the shop, making Easter chocolates. Rabbits and chickens and baskets of eggs. Mendiants and nougatines. Nipples of Venus, and apricot hearts, and bitter orange slices. All wrapped up in cellophane, and tied with coloured ribbons, and packed in boxes and sachets and bags, ready to give for Easter. I don’t like chocolates very much. I like hot chocolate, and a chocolate croissant, but I don’t want to work in a chocolate shop. Maman says everyone has something.

With her it’s making chocolates, and knowing which one’s your favourite. With Roux, it’s making bird calls and being able to fix almost anything. With me, it’s drawing animals. Everyone has an animal, a shadow of their true self. Mine is Bam, a monkey. Maman is a wild cat. Roux is a fox with a bushy tail. Anouk is a rabbit called Pantoufle. Pilou is a raccoon. And Narcisse is an old black bear, with his long nose and his shuffling walk and his little eyes filled with secrets.

Some people think Bam isn’t real. Even Maman calls him ‘Rosette’s imaginary friend’, especially to people like Madame Drou, who can’t even see the colours. That’s because Bam can be naughty. I have to watch him all the time. Sometimes I have to shout at him – BAM! – to stop him from causing an Accident. But Maman only pretends she can’t see him now. Maman doesn’t want to see. She thinks it would be easier if we were like the others. But I know she still sees Bam. Just like she sees her customers’ favourite kind of chocolate.

Just like she sees the colours that tell you how someone is feeling. But now she tries to hide those things, to be like the other mothers. Perhaps she thinks that if she does, I’ll be like the others, too. When the snow began to fall, Maman didn’t notice. She was with two ladies who were choosing chocolate animals. Ladies in spring dresses with high-heeled shoes and pastel coats. One is called Madame Montour. She doesn’t live here, but I’ve seen her around. She goes to church on Sundays. The other one was Madame Drou, who never comes in for chocolate, but only to find out what’s happening.

They were talking about a boy who was fat, and wouldn’t do as he was told. I don’t know who the boy was. I thought of two parrots, or two pink hens, clucking and preening and fussing. And I could see Madame Montour wondering why I wasn’t at school. No-one in Lansquenet wonders why. No-one in Lansquenet is surprised that I sometimes bark, or shout, or sing: Bam-Bam-Bam: Bam, badda-BAM! But I could see Maman watching me. I know she worries about me. There used to be Accidents, when I was small. Things that shouldn’t have happened, but did. Things that made us different.

And once they tried to take me away, when I was still a baby. Someone tried to take Anouk, too, when we lived in Paris. Now Maman worries. There’s no need. Nowadays, I’m careful. I drew a rose-pink parakeet for Madame Montour, and a hen for Madame Drou. Just a few strokes for the little pink head, the beak half open in surprise. I left them there on the counter, where Maman could see, and went outside. The wind was coming from the north, and there were petals on the ground, but when I stopped to look I saw that the petals were clumps of snow, whirling out of the blue spring sky like pieces of confetti. The priest was standing outside the church, looking surprised at the falling snow.

The priest’s name is Francis Reynaud. I didn’t like him when I first came, but now I think perhaps I do. And Reynaud means ‘fox’, which is silly, because anyone can see he’s really a crow, all in black, with his sad little crooked smile. But I do like the church. I like the smell of polished wood and incense. I like the coloured window glass and the statue of Saint Francis. Reynaud says Saint Francis is the patron saint of animals, who left his life to live in the woods. I’d like to do that. I’d build myself a house in a tree, and live on nuts and strawberries. Maman and I never go to church.

Once, that might have caused trouble. But Reynaud says we don’t have to go. Reynaud says God sees us, and cares for us, wherever we are. And now here comes the spinning snow, from a bright blue lantern sky. A sign – maybe even an Accident. I spread my coat like wings, and call – BAM! – to make sure he knows it isn’t my fault. Reynaud smiles and waves his hand. But I can tell he doesn’t see the flash of colours across the square. He doesn’t hear the song of the wind, or catch the scent of burning. These are all signs.

I see them all. But I can tell he doesn’t know. Snow, out of a clear blue sky. Someone will be dead by dawn.

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