Coastliners a novel, p.33
Coastliners: A Novel, p.33Joanne Harris
As dark fell and the tide rose, more people began to congregate at La Griznoz. Père Alban had been too busy in La Houssinière, where a special service was being held at the church, but the old nuns were there, bright and alert as ever. Braziers were lit; red, orange, and yellow lanterns flared around the foot of the ruined church; and once again the Salannais, strangely touching in their island hats and Sunday dresses, lined up at the feet of Sainte-Marine-de-la-Mer to pray and to plead aloud with the sea.
The Bastonnets were there with François and Laetitia; the Guénolés, the Prossages. Capucine was there with Lolo; Mercédès was there, holding Xavier’s hand, a little shyly, one hand on her stomach. Toinette sang the “Santa Marina” in her quavery voice; and Désirée, standing between Philippe and Gabi at the foot of the Saint, looked as rosy and contented as if it were a wedding. “Even if the Saint chooses not to intervene,” she said serenely, “just having my children here makes it worthwhile.”
I stood apart from the rest, on the brow of the dune, listening and thinking back to last year’s festival. It was a still night, and the crickets were loud in the warm grassy hollows. The hard sand was cool under my feet. From La Goulue, the hisssh of the incoming tide. Sainte-Marine looked down in her stony isolation, her features brought to life by the leaping flames. I watched as the Salannais drew close to the shore, one by one.
Mercédès was first, dropping a clutch of flower petals into the water. “Sainte-Marine. Bless my baby. Bless my parents and keep them safe.”
“Santa Marina. Bless my daughter. Keep her happy with her young man, and close enough to visit us once in a while.”
“Marine-de-la-Mer, bless Les Salants. Bless our shores.”
“Bless my husband and my sons—”
“Bless my father—”
“Bless my wife.”
Slowly I became conscious that something extraordinary was happening. Salannais linking hands in the firelight—Omer with his arm around Charlotte; Ghislain linking arms with Xavier; Capucine and Lolo; Aristide and Philippe; Damien and Alain. People were smiling in spite of their anxiety; instead of the sullen, bent heads of last year I could see bright eyes and proud faces. Head scarves were thrown back; hair loosened; I could see faces illuminated by something more than the firelight; dancing figures throwing handfuls of flower petals and ribbons and sachets of herbs into the waves. Toinette began to sing again, and this time more people joined her; the voices merging little by little into one voice—the voice of Les Salants.
I found that if I listened carefully I could almost hear GrosJean’s voice among them; and my mother’s; and P’titJean’s. Suddenly I wanted to join them; to step out into the firelight and pray to the Saint. But instead I whispered my prayer from the dune, very quietly, almost to myself. . . .
“Mado?” He can move absolutely silently when he wants to. That’s the islander in him—if there is an islander beneath all the pretense. I turned abruptly, my heart leaping.
“Jesus, Flynn, what are you doing here?” He was standing behind me on the dune-side path, out of sight of the little ceremony. He was wearing a dark vareuse, and he would have been almost invisible except for the skein of moonlight in his hair.
“Where have you been?” I hissed, looking back nervously at the Salannais, but before he could answer, there came a great cry from the lookout at Pointe Griznoz, echoed a second or two later by a wail from La Goulue.
“Aii! The tide! Aii!”
At the shrine, the singing stopped. There was a moment of confusion; some Salannais ran out to the edge of the Pointe, but in the uncertain light of the lanterns there was nothing much anyone could make out. Something was riding the waves, a dark, semibuoyant mass, but no one could tell precisely what it was. Alain grabbed a lantern and began to run; Ghislain did likewise. Before long, a trail of lanterns and flashlights were bobbing across the dune toward La Goulue, and the Black Tide.
Flynn and I were lost in the confusion. The crowd passed right beside us, shouting and questioning and swinging lanterns, but no one seemed to notice either of us. Everyone wanted to be first at La Goulue; some grabbed rakes and nets from the village as they passed, as if to begin the clean-up operation at once.
“What’s going on?” I asked Flynn as we let the crowd carry us along.
He shook his head. “Come and see.”
We had reached the blockhaus, always a good vantage point. Below us La Goulue was alive with lights. I could see several people standing in the shallows with lanterns, like a string of light-fishers. Around them I could see black shapes, dozens of them, half-buoyant, half-submerged, rolling under the waves. From afar I could hear raised voices, and—surely that was laughter? The black shapes were too unclear in the light of the lanterns to be recognizable, but for a moment I thought I glimpsed a regular pattern, too geometric to be natural.
“Watch this,” said Flynn.
Below us the raised voices had grown louder; more people had gathered at the water’s edge, some were in the sea up to their armpits. Light from the lanterns skated across the water; from above, the shallows were an unreal, lurid green.
“Keep watching,” said Flynn.
It was definitely laughter; down on La Goulue I could see people splashing in the shallows. “What’s going on?” I demanded. “Is it the Black Tide?”
“In a way.”
Now I could see Omer and Alain rolling dark objects out of the surf. Others joined them; the objects were about a meter in diameter and regular in shape. From a distance I thought they looked like car tires.
“That’s exactly what they are,” said Flynn quietly. “That’s the Bouch’ou.”
“What?” I felt as if something in me had been cut adrift. “The Bouch’ou?”
He nodded. His expression was strangely illuminated by the glow from the beach. “Mado. It was the only thing to do.”
“But what for? All our work—”
“Right now, we have to stop the drift toward La Goulue. Get rid of the reef, and the currents move with it. That way, if the oil comes as far as Le Devin, it might bypass Les Salants. At least this gives you a chance.”
He had gone out at low tide. He had used bolt cutters on the airplane cables that held the modules together. Half an hour’s work; the tide did the rest.
“And are you sure this will do it?” I said at last. “We’ll be safe now?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Ah, Mado, what did you expect?” He sounded exasperated now. “I can’t give you everything!” He shook his head. “At least you can fight back now. Les Salants doesn’t have to die.”
“What about Brismand?” I asked dully.
“He’s too busy with his own side of the island to pay much attention to what’s going on here. The last I heard, he was racking his brains to try and figure out how to move a hundred-ton breakwater in twenty-four hours.” He smiled. “It seems maybe GrosJean had the right idea about that, after all.”
For a moment his words were incomprehensible to me. I had been so absorbed in my thoughts of the Black Tide that I’d actually forgotten about Brismand’s plans. I felt a sudden joyous, savage surge inside me. “If Brismand takes down his defenses too, it could all stop,” I said. “The tides would go back to the way they were before.”
Flynn laughed. “Little cookouts on the beach. Three guests in a back bedroom. Three francs a head to look at the Saint. Counting pennies. No money, no expansion, no future, no fortune, nothing.”
I shook my head. “You’re wrong,” I told him. “There’d be Les Salants.”
He laughed again, rather wildly. “That’s right. Les Salants.”
* * *
I know he can’t stay in Les Salants. It’s stupid of me to expect it. There are too many lies and deceptions to trip him up. Too many people hate him. And he is a mainlander at heart. He dreams of cities and lights. However much he may want to, I don’t see how he could stay. Similarly I w
Noirmoutier will almost certainly get it. The Île d’Yeu is still uncertain. The savage currents that separate us are already battling for control. One of us—maybe only one—will get the oil. But Les Salants has not lost hope. Indeed, we are working harder than ever before. The creek is secure now, the vivarium well stocked. Aristide, whose wooden leg prevents him from more active duties, scans the television broadcasts for news while Philippe helps Xavier. Charlotte and Mercédès are running Angélo’s, providing food for the volunteers. Omer, the Guénolés, and the Bastonnets spend almost all of their time at Les Immortelles. Brismand has enlisted anyone who will help him—Houssins or Salannais—to help with the slow dismantling of the breakwater at Les Immortelles; he has also changed his will in favor of Marin. Damien, Lolo, Hilaire, Angélo, and Capucine are still clearing La Goulue, and we plan to reuse the old car tires to construct protective barriers against the oil, if it makes it to our beaches. We have already collected supplies of cleaning equipment for this eventuality. Flynn is in charge.
Yes, for the moment, he remains. Some of the men are still cool toward him, but the Guénolés and the Prossages have accepted him back wholeheartedly in spite of everything, and Aristide played chess with him yesterday, so maybe there’s hope for him yet. Certainly this is no time for useless recriminations. He works as hard as any of us—harder, even—and on Le Devin that’s really all that matters now. I don’t know why he stays. Still, it is oddly comforting to see him every day, in his usual place at La Goulue, poking with a stick at the things the sea brings in, rolling the endless tide of car tires up into the dunes for disposal. He has not yet lost his sharp edges—perhaps he never will—but I think he seems softened, smoothed, partly reclaimed, almost one of us. I have even begun to like him—a little.
Sometimes I wake up and look out of the window at the sky. It is never quite dark at this time of year. Sometimes Flynn and I creep out to look over La Goulue, where the sea is glaucous with the strange phosphorescence peculiar to the Jade Coast, and sit out there on the dune. There are tamarisks growing there, and late pinks, and rabbit-tail grasses, which flicker and bob palely in the starlight. Across the water we can sometimes see the lights of the mainland: a warning beacon to the west, the winking balise to the south. Flynn likes to sleep out on the beach. He likes the small sounds of insects from the cliff side above his head, and the oyat grass that whispers. Sometimes we stay there all night.
Winter has come, and still the Black Tides have not reached us. Île d’Yeu has been somewhat affected; Fromentine is under oil; the whole of Noirmoutier badly ravaged. And still it rises; following the coast northward, fingering its way into shallows and across promontories. It is still too soon to say what will happen here. But Aristide is optimistic; Toinette has consulted the Saint and claims to have seen visions; Mercédès and Xavier have moved into the little cottage on the dunes, much to old Bastonnet’s unspoken delight; Omer has hit an unprecedented winning streak at belote; and I’m certain that the other day I saw Charlotte Prossage smile. No, I wouldn’t say our tide has turned. But something else has come back to Le Devin. A kind of purpose. No one can turn back the tide, at least not forever. Everything returns. But Le Devin holds fast. In flood, in drought, come Black Year or Black Tide, it holds. It holds because we do; the Devinnois—Bastonnets, Guénolés, Prasteaus, Prossages, Brismands—even perhaps, more recently, the Flynns. Nothing can keep us down. Might as well spit in the wind as try.
No book is an island, and I should like to thank the following people, without whom none of this would have been possible. Heartfelt thanks to my agent, Serafina Warrior Princess; to Jennifer Luithlen, Howard Morhaim, and everyone else who has negotiated, cajoled, intimidated, and otherwise steered this book toward publication. Thanks also to my editor, Jennifer Hershey, and to all my friends at Avon Morrow; to Kevin and Anouchka for being (most of the time) a safe harbor; thanks to my e-correspondents Curt, Mary, Emma, Simon, and Jules for keeping me in touch with the rest of the world; to Stevie, Paul, and David for mint tea and pancakes; thanks to Charles de Lint—with apologies for the inadvertent theft of two crow feathers; and to Christopher Fowler, for holding the line. Thanks to the innumerable sales staff and booksellers who have worked to keep my books on the shelves, and, finally, thanks to the people of Les Salants, who I hope will forgive me in time. . . .
About the Author
Joanne Harris is the author of Five Quarters of the Orange, Blackberry Wine, and Chocolat, which was nominated for the Whitbread Award. Half French and half British, Harris lives in England.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
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