Coastliners a novel, p.31
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.31

           Joanne Harris
 

  “Papers?” I repeated.

  “Registers. I used to have a clerk. Then, the nuns. Now I have no one.”

  “I could help.” I wasn’t imagining it; he was trying to say something to me. “Père Alban, let me help you.”

  He gave a smile of peculiar sweetness. “How kind of you to offer, Madeleine. That would be a great relief.”

  Islanders mistrust paperwork. That’s why we set a priest to guard our secrets, our strange births and violent deaths, to tend our family trees. The information is public, of course, at least in theory. But shadows of the confessional lie over it, buried as it is beneath the dust. There has never been a computer here, nor will there be. Instead there are ledgers, closely written in reddish brown ink, and mushroom-colored folders containing documents crisp with age.

  The signatures that sprawl or scurry across these pages contain entire histories; here an illiterate mother has stuck a rose petal onto the birth certificate of her child; there a man’s hand has faltered on the entry for his wife’s death. Marriages, stillbirths, deaths. Here two brothers, shot by the Germans for smuggling black market goods from the mainland; there an entire family died of influenza; on this page a girl—another Prossage—gave birth to a baby “father unknown.” Opposite, another girl—a child of fourteen—died giving birth to a deformed infant, which did not survive.

  The endless variations were never dull; strangely enough I found them rather uplifting. To continue as we do in the face of everything seems oddly heroic, knowing that in the end it all comes to this. The island names—Prossage, Bastonnet, Guénolé, Prasteau, Brismand—marched across the pages like soldiers. I almost forgot why I was there.

  Père Alban left me alone. Perhaps he did not trust himself. For a time I lost myself completely in the histories of Le Devin until the light began to fail and I remembered why I had come. It took me a further hour to find the reference for which I was searching.

  I was still not entirely sure what I was looking for, and I wasted time on my own family tree—my mother’s signature bringing tears to my eyes as I came across it by chance at the top of a page, with GrosJean’s careful illiterate’s script next to it. Then GrosJean’s birth and his brother’s, on the same page though years apart. GrosJean’s death and his brother’s—Lost at sea. The pages, closely written to the point of being almost illegible, took long minutes to scan. I began to wonder if maybe I had misunderstood, and there was nothing for me after all.

  And then, suddenly, there it was. A notice of marriage between Claude Saint-Joseph Brismand and Eleanore Margaret Flynn, two signatures in purple ink—a curt Brismand followed by an exuberant Eleanore, with a loop on the l that goes on almost forever, intertwining like ivy with the names above and below.

  Eleanore. I said it aloud, with a catch in my voice.

  I’d found her.

  “So she has, ma soeur.”

  “I knew she would if she kept at it.”

  It was the two sisters. Both of them were standing in the doorway, smiling like apple dolls. In the dim light they looked almost young again, their eyes shining. “You remind us of her, just a little, doesn’t she, ma soeur? She reminds us of—”

  “Eleanore.”

  After that it was easy. Eleanore was where it began and Eleanore was where it ended. We unraveled the tale, the nuns and I, in the records room of the church, lighting candles to illuminate the old papers as the light began to fail.

  I had already guessed a part of the story. The sisters knew the rest. Maybe Père Alban had let something slip, when they were helping him with the registers.

  It’s an island story, bleaker than most, but then we are so used to clinging to these rocks that we have developed a resilience—some of us have, at least. It begins with two brothers, close as crabs, Jean-Marin and Jean-François Prasteau. And of course, the girl, all fire and temperament. There was passion too; it was in the way her signature looped and sprawled across the page, a kind of restless romance.

  “She wasn’t from here,” explained Soeur Thérèse. “Monsieur Brismand brought her back from one of his trips abroad. She had no parents, no friends, no money of her own. She was ten years younger than he was; barely out of her teens—”

  “But a real beauty,” said Soeur Extase. “Beautiful and restless, the dynamite combination—”

  “With Monsieur Brismand so busy making money that after the wedding he hardly seemed to notice her at all.”

  He’d wanted children; all islanders do. But she’d wanted more. She found no friends among the Houssin wives—she was too young and foreign for their taste—and took to sitting alone at Les Immortelles every day, watching the sea and reading books.

  “Oh, she loved stories,” said Soeur Extase. “Reading them and telling them—”

  “Knights and ladies—”

  “Princes and dragons.”

  That was where the brothers first saw her. They had come to pick up a delivery of supplies for the boatyard they ran with their father, and she was waiting there. She had been on Le Devin for less than three months.

  The impulsive P’titJean had been instantly smitten. He started to visit her in La Houssinière every day, sitting next to her on the beach and talking to her. GrosJean looked on stolidly, amused at first, then curious, a little jealous, then finally, fatally ensnared.

  “She knew what she was doing,” said Soeur Thérèse. “It was a game at first—she liked games. P’titJean was a boy; he would have got over her eventually. But GrosJean—”

  My father, a silent man of deep emotions, was different. She sensed it; he drew her. They met in secret, in the dunes or by La Goulue. GrosJean taught her to sail; she told him stories. The boats he built at the yard reflected her influence, those fanciful names from books and poems he would never read.

  But by now Brismand had grown suspicious. It was mostly P’titJean’s fault; his adoration had not gone unnoticed in La Houssinière, and although he was so young, he was much closer to Eleanore in age than her husband. Claude never seriously suspected him; but for Eleanore there were no more trips alone to Les Salants, and he made sure that there was always a nun out at Les Immortelles to watch over her. Besides, now Eleanore was pregnant, and Claude was overjoyed.

  The boy was born a little prematurely. She named him after Claude—island tradition demands it—but with typical perversity she inserted another, more secret name there, on the birth certificate, for anyone to see.

  No one made the connection. Not even my father—that complex, looping script was far beyond his skill to decipher—and for a few months Eleanore found her restlessness curbed by the infant’s demands.

  But Brismand had become more possessive now that he had a son. Sons are important on Le Devin—more so than on the mainland, where healthy children are so common. I imagined how he had been, how proud of his boy. I imagined how the brothers watched him, in scorn and guilt and envy and desire. I’d always assumed my father hated Claude Brismand because of something Brismand had done to him. Only now did I understand that the ones we hate most are those we ourselves have wronged.

  And what of Eleanore? For a while she really tried to devote herself to her baby. But she was unhappy. Like my mother, she found island life unendurable. Women eyed her with suspicion and envy; men dared not speak to her.

  “She read and read those books of hers,” Soeur Thérèse told me, “but nothing helped. She got thin—she lost her shine. She was like some wildflowers you should never pick, because they droop and fade in a vase. She talked to us sometimes—”

  “But we were too old for her, even then. She needed life.”

  Both sisters nodded, their sharp eyes gleaming. “One day she gave us a letter to deliver to Les Salants. Veryvery nervous, she was—”

  “But laughing fit to split—”

  “And the next day—Pfft! She and the baby were gone.”

  “No one knew where or why—”

  “Though we can guess, can’t we, ma soeur, we don’t hold confession
, but—”

  “People tell us things, all the same.”

  When had P’titJean guessed the truth? Did he find out by accident, or did she tell him herself, or did he see it, as I had thirty years later, written on the child’s birth certificate in her own exuberant hand?

  The sisters looked at me expectantly, both smiling. I looked down at the birth certificate on the desk in front of me; the purple ink, the name written in that now-familiar looped, elaborate script. . . .

  Jean-Claude Désiré St.-Jean François Brismand.

  The boy was GrosJean’s son.

  13

  * * *

  I know guilt. I know it very well. That’s my father in me, the bitter core of him I inherited. It paralyzes; it stifles. When P’titJean and his boat were washed up at La Goulue, that’s how he must have felt. Paralyzed. Sealed shut. He had always been the silent one; now it seemed that he could never be silent enough. P’titJean alive must have caused him enough heartache; P’titJean dead was an obstacle that could never be removed.

  By the time my father thought to contact Eleanore, she had already gone, leaving behind the letter, which he found, opened, addressed to himself, in the pocket of his brother’s coat, hanging by a hook behind his bedroom door.

  I found it, you see, as I made my final search through my father’s old house. It is from the letter that I was able to piece together the final details; my father’s death; P’titJean’s suicide; Flynn.

  I don’t pretend to understand it all. My father left no other explanation. I don’t know why I expected him to; in life he never gave any. But we discussed it for a long time, the sisters and I, and I think we may have come close enough to the truth.

  Flynn was the catalyst, of course. Without knowing it, he had set the machine in motion. My father’s son; the son he could never acknowledge, because to do that, he would have to admit his responsibility for the suicide of his brother. Now I could understand my father’s reaction when he learned who Flynn was. Everything returns; from Black Year to Black Year, Eleanore to Eleanore, the cycle was complete; and the bitter poetry of this ending must have appealed to the romantic in him.

  Perhaps Alain had been right and he had not intended to die, I told myself. Perhaps it had been a desperate gesture, an attempt at redemption, my father’s way of making amends. After all, the man responsible for all of this was his son.

  The sisters and I returned the papers and registers to their original place. I was silently grateful for their presence, their incessant chatter, which kept me from examining too closely my own part of the tale.

  Night had fallen, and I walked slowly back to Les Salants, listening to the crickets in the tamarisk bushes and looking at the stars. From time to time a glowworm shone sickly between my feet. I felt as if I had given blood. My anger had gone. My grief too. Even the horror of what I had learned seemed terribly unreal, as remote as stories I’d read as a child. Something in me had been cut loose, and for the first time in my life I felt that I might be able to leave Le Devin without that dreadful sensation of drifting, of weightlessness, of flotsam on an alien tide. At last, I knew where I was going.

  My father’s house was silent. However I had a peculiar feeling that I was not alone. It was something in the air, a scent of stale candle smoke, an unfamiliar resonance. I was not afraid. Instead I felt oddly at home, as if my father had simply gone night fishing, as if my mother were still there, maybe in the bedroom, reading one of her tattered paperback romances.

  I hesitated for a moment at my father’s door before pushing it open. The room was as he had left it, perhaps a little neater than usual, with his clothes folded and his bed made. I felt a pang at the sight of GrosJean’s old vareuse hanging from a peg behind the door, but otherwise I was calm inside. This time I knew what to look for.

  He kept his secret papers in a shoe box, as such men do, tied up with a piece of fishing twine, at the back of his wardrobe. A small collection; as I shook the box I could tell that it was barely half full. A few photographs—my parents’ wedding, she in white, he in island dress. Beneath the flat-brimmed black hat his face was achingly young. A few snapshots of Adrienne and me; several of P’titJean at various ages. Most of the other papers were drawings.

  He drew on butcher’s paper, mostly in charcoal and thick black pencil, and the passing of time and the friction of the papers against one another had blurred the lines, but even so I could see that GrosJean had once had an extraordinary talent. Features were represented with a sparseness that almost matched his conversation, but every line, every smudge was expressive. Here his thumb had traced a fat line of shadow around the contour of a jaw; there a pair of eyes peered with strange intensity from behind a mask of charcoal.

  They were all portraits; every one of the same woman. I knew her name; I’d seen the elegant scrawl of her writing on the church register. Now I saw her beauty too: the arrogance of her cheekbones, the cock of her head, the curve of her mouth.

  These were his love letters, I realized, these drawings of her. My silent, illiterate father had once found a beautiful voice. From between two sheets of butcher’s paper a dried flower slid; a dune pink, bleached yellow with age. Then a piece of ribbon that might once have been blue or green. Then a letter.

  It was the only written document. A single page, breaking open at the seams from having been so many times folded and unfolded. I recognized her handwriting at once, the looping scrawl and the violet ink.

  My dear Jean-François,

  Maybe you did well to stay away from me so long. I resented it at first, and I was angry; but now I understand it was to give me time to think.

  I know I don’t belong here. I’m made of a different element; for a while I thought we might change each other, but it was too hard for both of us.

  I’ve decided to leave on tomorrow’s ferry. Claude won’t stop me; he’s gone to Fromentine on business for a few days. I’ll wait for you on the jetty until 12.00.

  I won’t blame you if you don’t come with me. You do belong here, and it would be wrong of me to force you to leave. But all the same, try not to forget me; maybe one day our son will come back, even if I never do.

  Everything returns,

  Eleanore

  I folded the letter carefully again, and replaced it in the shoe box. There it was, I told myself. The final confirmation, if one was needed. How it had come into P’titJean’s possession, I did not know; but for an impressionable and melancholic young man, the shock of his brother’s betrayal must have been terrible. Had it been suicide, or a dramatic gesture that went wrong? No one was certain, except perhaps for Père Alban.

  GrosJean would have gone to him, I knew. An Houssin, a priest, only he was far enough from the center of the affair to be trusted to decipher Eleanore’s letter. It was confession enough for the old priest; and he had kept the secret well.

  GrosJean had told no one else. After Eleanore’s departure he had become increasingly withdrawn, spending hours at Les Immortelles, looking out to sea, retreating further and further into himself. For a time it had seemed that perhaps his marriage to my mother might draw him out of himself, but the change had been short-lived. Different elements, Eleanore had said. Different worlds.

  I put the lid back on the shoe box and carried it out with me into the garden. As the door closed behind me I was struck by a feeling of certainty; I would never set foot inside GrosJean’s house again.

  “Mado.” He was waiting by the boatyard gate, almost invisible in his black jeans and jumper. “I thought you’d come if I waited long enough.”

  My hands tightened around the shoe box. “What do you want?”

  “I’m sorry about your father.” His face was in shadow; shadows leaped in his eyes. I felt something tighten inside me. “My father?” I said harshly.

  I saw him wince at my tone of voice. “Mado, please.”

  “Don’t come near me.” Flynn had reached out his hand to brush my arm. Though I was wearing a jacket, I imagined I could
feel his touch burning through the heavy fabric and felt a sick horror at the desire that uncoiled like a snake at the pit of my stomach. “Don’t touch me!” I cried, lashing out. “What do you want? Why did you come back?”

  My blow had caught him across the mouth. He put a hand to his face, watching me calmly. “I know you’re angry,” he said.

  “Angry?”

  I’m not usually a talker. But this time my anger had a voice. A whole orchestra of voices. I gave him everything: Les Salants, Les Immortelles, Brismand; Eleanore; my father; himself. At the end I stopped, breathless, and thrust the shoe box into his hands. He made no move to retain it; it slipped onto the ground, spilling all the sad trivia of my father’s life into a drift of papers. I kneeled to pick them up, my hands trembling.

  His voice was blank. “GrosJean’s son? His son?”

  “Didn’t Eleanore tell you? Wasn’t that why you were so eager to keep it in the family?”

  “I had no idea.” His eyes narrowed; I sensed he was doing some very quick thinking. “It doesn’t matter,” he said at last. “This doesn’t change anything.” He seemed to be speaking to himself rather than to me. He turned toward me again with a rapid movement. “Mado,” he said urgently. “Nothing’s changed.”

  “What do you mean?” I was close to striking him again. “Of course it’s changed. Everything’s changed. You’re my brother.” I could feel my eyes beginning to burn; my throat was raw and bitter. “My brother,” I said again, my fists still full of GrosJean’s papers, and went off into a harsh scream of laughter that ended in a long, painful bout of coughing.

 
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JOANNE HARRIS SERIES:

Chocolat
Loki
Runemarks

 

Other author's books:


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