She is walking on the steep, light-stained path. Her breath is short, her head bent. Hands on her hips, one step after the other, sweat on the nape of her neck, on the small of her back, in the cold of the air that is getting rarer. Behind her the children are walking, she can hear them, the little stones that roll, the twigs that break, the light breaths that have become hoarse. She doesn’t turn around but she knows that the little one is right behind her, soldiering on, her eyes fixed on the ground, her cheeks flushed. When they left the village they arranged themselves by age and it’s the oldest, with his strangely skinny legs and his pale chin hair, who brings up the rear. Behind him there should be another one, a tall blond girl, but too frail. She would perhaps sometimes pass to the front of the line, to hold the hand of the youngest, or even carry her. Instead she remained small, with her dirty-doll face and her half-open eyes, hair that shone like copper and that the mother religiously cut. She was her very first, but the mother did not cry then. People told her, “There will be others,” and there were others, the one who was already growing inside of her, and the children that came later, and none of them were the very first, but these are things that cannot be said. The girl who was born right after, she received the same name. She smiles all the time and she knows how to make up stories, as if it had to become a name of joy. But she isn’t either where she should be, right in the middle of the line. This one had to be left with the grandmother and the grandfather, because she makes life softer for them too. The name will never be given anymore; it is not of joy, it is of loss.
The mother sees them, her daughters, struggling behind her on the cold, sun-stained path. But no. These two don’t leave the valley. That’s when it clears up. The mule track widens, it leaves the trees, or rather the trees leave it, it hugs the side of the mountain now, making large curves along with it. All around it’s a new valley, narrow, arid, full of stones, warm with the early summer that reaches up to here. On the green slopes the tawny spots of the tarines, the white of the sheep. The herd has preceded them, with the
mules and the two boys hired for the season, who must have opened the bouillu by now, and taken water from the basin. The mother doesn’t turn around, she says loudly: “François, run ahead, see what Flavien and Cambriola are up to, if they’re not eating my bread.” The boy takes off, the heavy shoes at the end of his bird legs weighing like fruit that has become too big for the stems. The other three children have caught up with the mother, they crowd around her, she scatters them like sparrows. “The rest of you, go on and open our linen.”
Now Césarine sits by the side of the path. Sometimes you have to wait some to arrive.
It’s taken a long time, all this. The bouillu, the herd, the thieving boys.
First she’d had to leave — several years ago, another summer, a suitcase under the arm and the little one on the hip and the children she had left sniffing for leaving their sister. Their sister who had kissed them all and had then fled into the house, refusing to say goodbye to the mother. “You love me less than the others,” she had shouted, and what could Césarine say, if you weren’t so kind and funny and full of life they would let you go with me. Instead she had shouted, “Don’t disrespect your mother!” The grandparents were on the doorstep, the “Nena” looking at her sternly, the other one keeping his head low. A few days earlier Césarine had hissed between clenched teeth: “If Honoré could see you, he’d kill you, grandfather. Thank God he’s not here to see that shame anymore.” The grandfather had taken his hand out from under his daughter-in-law’s shirt, and then raised it up. The cheek was still burning the morning Césarine left, with snotty sparrows huddled in her big black skirt.
Afterwards they’d had to walk. The path went downhill that time. They didn’t have to go very far. It’s easier than one thinks, becoming a servant in the village below, working with other people’s animals all day long, feeding the children with the potatoes and milk of the pay. Staying is easy. It’s leaving that lodges a stone in your heart. Without the children who have the same name, without the husband who is no longer here to see the shame. Once you’ve found where to go, you stay. It doesn’t ask anything of you.
Except that Césarine had her mountain. A small mountain that Honoré had let her buy and where one day there would be a dry-stone cabin and animals grazing, and summers of work just below the snows that don’t melt. Honoré never refused his permission. He would say yes, or he would just sign. He would accompany Césarine on walks made for dreaming, to see where they would build the bouillu, to talk about the village house where, in time, the sons would settle their own wives and give life to children with copper hair and sticky cheeks. With Honoré it would be less rough, less mean. Césarine wanted to put all her money into the dream. Honoré said yes. Of course no one could know that he was going to fall, on a day of snow and haze, a day of blind walking. Nor that it would take hours to find him, the lower part of his body already dead, all killed by the ice. That’s what the Nena would say, afterwards, “the ice killed him away from us,” and it took its time, it moved slowly through the body, from the legs to the stomach, to the hands, and then to the heart. Years of children running, cows calving, cheese curdling. Years of spoon-feeding, for him and for the little ones. And the cold that grew.
Anyway, the mountain was still there, somewhere. And when Césarine had enough money again, she put it all in there, in the little stone house that Honoré would never know.
There it is, her mountain, in the warm day of the early summer, in the bittersweet smell of cows and flowers together, in the little hard stones that Césarine feels under her bum. She gets up and walks up to the grassy ridge where the cabin district is settled. The huts are already rustling softly, there is smoke in the chimneys, old laundry in the sun, puppies are playing on the flat. And in her own bouillu, the little world settles in.
The four children are on the platform at the top of the ladder, she can hear them talking while they arrange the bedding.
“Tomorrow morning, I’m going to milk the cow,” says the little one.
“No way, it’s too early,” replies the youngest boy.
“No, it’s not too early.”
“Yes, you will never wake up.”
“Flavien said he would wake me up and we would milk the cow.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Yes, I will.”
A small head appears at the edge of the platform; a tired face and eyes eaten by excitement.
“Maman, isn’t it true that tomorrow I’m going to milk the cow?”
Césarine looks away.
“Hurry up, up there. We haven’t got all day.”
She hears whispering.
“See, you won’t go.”
It’s the first summer. She acts like she knows everything but it’s the first summer. The first time with her animals, the first night in her cabin, the very first creams that she churns for herself. She learns to give orders rather than receive them, go get water, find me some wood, clean the cows.
She thinks of the harsh voice of the grandfather who nobody can disobey. She tells herself that she won’t raise her hand; that is for men who don’t know any other way. But the voice, the roughness, that she can.
It is the first summer and there are things that dance in the sun, others that tremble in the darkness of the small hours: red hands rubbing, rubbing, rubbing in the icy water of the basin, swollen udders that look painful, the small bubbles of the cream when it’s just gotten out, the violent stains of flowers on the grass, the metallic glow of the stream, fire licking the pot, an eagle up there that you must squint to see. The pain in the back, in the arms, in the legs, too. The eyes dry with sleep, something lodged in the chest that won’t go away. But all this light on the face, still, the grassy smell of cheese curdling, the warmth of polenta dissolving in cold milk. And the children playing, how could they ever be stopped? They run, they laugh, they wait to be scolded. The little one never went to milk the cow. She made flower wreaths and poppy dancers. The boys eat too much. François is getting tanner, stronger. Sometimes, in a flicker of light, he looks just like his father.
Translated from French by the author