Victoria, British Columbia
Through the narrow slit of the castle keep window, the boy surveyed their arrival. They had taken the long way around the lake from the station, skirting the village, past the stone cross where every day, winter and summer, Jean le Fou stood, bare chest and skinny arms spread across the old stone cross in front of the churchyard. One of the girls stopped to adjust a strap on her sandal, but the buckle must have been broken because she couldn’t go more than fifty meters without stopping again. Both girls walked with their hands behind their backs to take some of the weight from the enormous backpacks they carried.
As they came up the hill towards the chateau, the boy heard them singing a canon, one low rich voice and one reedy one repeating the same few lines of music until one or the other made a mistake and they would burst out laughing and start again. Then M. Gautier came up over the crest of the hill and stopped to offer them a lift in the cart he was pulling behind his tractor. He’d just been up at the pasture to fork hay into the cattle troughs where he kept the old cows, the ones with the dried up tits that never gave milk any more. One of the girls showed him something written on the page of a green notebook and Gautier pointed a stubby finger down towards the lake.
The boy could guess where they were going. He recognized the sounds of English from watching Cinema de Minuit on the television every Friday night. The movies had subtitles that were too quick for him but generally he could follow their plots. He’d grown used to the cadences of English, grown fond of them. American rubbish, his aunt mocked. His uncle reduced everything to sexual innuendo, slapping the boy on the shoulder every time a pretty actress came on the screen, and making the boy’s ears burn scarlet.
The girls helped each other off with their back packs and heaved them into the cart, smiling and nodding at Gautier and pushing stray strands of long hair behind their ears. Then they climbed on, looped their arms through one another’s and let their tanned legs dangle over the back. M. Gautier stuck his cigarette between his teeth and the tractor rumbled down the hill and out of sight where the trees crowded up against the lake.
When the boy’s shadow appeared on the white stone wall in front of him, Mirard put down his trowel and looked up. He watched the boy cross the narrow plywood gangplank from the guard’s platform of the keep to the parapet stairs that he and the boy had just finished last week. Though the gangplank was twenty feet in the air, the boy crossed without hesitation. Like a castle guard just finished his watch, thought Mirard, though the boy’s thin legs and narrow shoulders were more those of a girl than a soldier. The boy had been coming here to watch the restoration of the chateau since he was child. In fact, it must have been the same year that he was born, twelve or thirteen years ago that Mirard had placed the first stone to rebuild the archway of the outer wall. Mirard had written letters to the municipality, to historical societies and even to President Mitterand to garner support for his restoration project, but when no one seemed interested, he’d decided he would do it himself, stone by stone, if it took him the rest of his life. When the boy was seven or eight, he’d asked to help with the work, and Mirard had let him pour water into the cement drum, and later shovel in the gravel.
Although the villagers often came up to watch him pile the fallen boulders from the hillside into his wheelbarrow and cart them back up the hill, and even the odd tourist bus came along to have a look, except for the boy, no one else had offered to help. Mirard explained to the boy that the chateau dated from the tenth century but had been destroyed by Richelieu in one of his purges to rout out the Huguenots and their supporters. Richelieu, he told the boy, had been a superb strategist but a paranoid one. "Give me six lines written by the most honest man," Richelieu had said, "and I will find something in them to hang him." By the end of his reign of power, not a chateau in Southern France was left standing. The Le Favor chateau had been part of the Mirard family’s estate for 300 hundred years. Beyond its south wall were stones set in place by the Romans. The hill, he explained, offered the best view of the valley for a hundred kilometres. The castle keep was the only building Mirard and the boy had completely restored. From its roof, to the east they could see as far as the city of Vienne. To the west rose the pillars of the nuclear power plant that spewed two thin jets of steam into the blue, and to the north was a yellow brown smudge that marked the smog hovering over Lyon some 40 kilometres away. Mirard seldom went up to the guard’s lookout; his hip ached when he climbed the steps and he didn’t trust his legs on the narrow gangplank. But the boy often spent hours up there gazing out over the countryside.
The boy descended to the lower wall, nodded a goodbye at Mirard, then turned, jumped to the soft ground beneath the fir trees and jogged through the woods to the road below. He picked up speed on the long hill towards the lake and as he ran he imagined Gautier in his dirty blue coveralls turning to ogle the girls, one blackened hand on the wheel, the soggy stub of Gaulois waggling up and down between his lips as he pointed out this and that feature of the village. By now he would have left them at their destination and gone on to the café owned by the boy’s aunt and uncle. He would be sitting splay-legged at his usual table, nursing a glass of cloudy pastis and gossiping about les petites Canadiennes. They were Canadians, the boy felt certain. The only foreigners who came to the village were friends of the MacIntyres, who spent their summers in Vancouver and returned each fall to their beautiful old house by lake. They often invited friends to stay in their house in the summer. They liked having someone there to protect the place from break-ins that were becoming commonplace in the village now.
Last May, an enormous man who shaved his head and spoke very bad French had stayed in the MacIntyre house for several months. He’d arrived with a woman who wore long printed skirts and tied her dark hair up in a cotton print headscarf like the gypsies who sometimes set up camp in Tontine Angel’s goat pasture. The gypsy woman had walked the two kilometres to the village square every morning to buy bread and wine and meat, her long skirt billowing out behind her. The bald man had resurrected a rusty tandem bike from the MacIntyre's shed and ridden it to the village each afternoon. He picked up his English newspaper at the post office and come into the café for a demie of beer and a package of American cigarettes. Then one day the postman said he'd given a lift to another young woman from the station and dropped her at the MacIntyre place. This one, the real wife, the boy’s aunt had said, refilling her husband’s wine glass and clucking her tongue. And no sign now of the gypsy. The boy’s uncle was sopping up gravy with a stump of bread. He paused for a moment and whistled. Eh, ben dis donc. He wiped his chin and winked at the boy.
No one ever saw much of the new wife, but the man with the shaved head had carried on coming to the cafe every day as if nothing had changed. Maybe she'd left too when she found out about the gypsy wife, the boy thought. Then one day Gautier brought the news that the MacIntyres wouldn’t be coming back that winter. M. MacIntyre had had a car accident in Canada, there’d been some sort of head injury and he’d need many weeks of rehabilitation. The bald man and his wife were leaving and the MacIntyres had asked them to buy a goose to guard the house and property while it stood unoccupied. I sold him Albertine, said Gautier laughing. For 200 francs! And it was me who should have paid him take her away!
That afternoon when the boy set the mug of beer in front of the bald Canadian, he’d folded his paper and grabbed the boy’s wrist. Hey,pal. Like to make some pocket money? The man’s loud voice made the boy take a step back from the table. Don’t look so scared, he laughed. Parce-que we go away. Nous allons bye-bye. He waved a hand in the air. I need you to feed the goose. Pour les MacIntyres. He dropped the boy’s wrist and pulled some bills out of his pocket and waved them in the air. Toutes les semaines, vingt francs pour donner a manger l'oie. It was more money than the boy had ever had in his life. He couldn’t begin to envision what he might buy with it or even whether or not he might spend it or simply hide it. He’d never trusted geese, especially those of Gautier. But he nodded. Good. Arrivez at five o’clock. Then he drained his glass, tossed a ten franc note on the table, and walked out.
The boy had never set foot on the property before, only peered through the gate into the overgrown garden and breathed in the scent of white and pink climbing roses that sent their perfume out onto the parched road. He hesitated at the gate but the man appeared through the kitchen doors and gestured to him. "Entrez. Entrez. Oui. Yes. Come on," he said striding over to the gate. He swung it open, then stood back, ushering the boy as though he were a maitre’d in an elegant restaurant. The goose was standing on the edge of the small fishpond near the peonies, her wide webbed feet spread over the cement like two wet orange leaves. She turned her head sideways and pinned a red beady eye on him. The boy began softly babbling at her, calling her over and walking very slowly towards her.
Albertine, bebbette. Petite Albertine viens ici. The goose put her head down, thrust out her neck, spread her wings, and charged headlong at him, hissing viciously. The boy ran towards the gate and then turned to face her but she kept coming, snapping her orange beak. As the boy leapt onto the gatepost, the goose opened her beak and grabbed hold of one of his shoelaces. He tugged and kicked but she hung on and backed up slowly, her neck muscles wire cables pulling him forward. Finally, he had to use his other foot to pry his heel out of his running shoe. The laughter of the bald man echoed over the lake as the boy stood with one sock foot on the road outside the gate and watched the goose drag his shoe off towards the pond. She dropped it on the cement lip where it teetered for a moment and fell in. The boy was angry now. He kicked open the gate and came running at the goose with his own neck forward and his arms waving. The goose stood frozen for a moment and then backed into the peonies where she stood hissing and snaking her long neck back and forth. It seemed to the boy then that he’d never seen a creature so stupid and awkward, so ridiculous-looking as a goose. Without taking his eyes off her, he reached into the pond and fished out his shoe. It was slimy with algae and dripping. Then he turned and walked out of the yard, ignoring the man who was still laughing and the goose that followed him to the gate, hissing and honking and snapping her beak at him.
That night the boy lay in bed, sweating with fury as he thought of the scene that had taken place that afternoon. Whenever he closed his eyes, he saw the red eye of the goose on his eyelids. The bald American would be laughing all night. The next morning he went into his uncle’s market garden and picked an armful of chard and lettuce. Then he went into the shed and filled an empty coffee tin with rusty nails that his uncle had prized from a shack he’d torn down earlier that summer. At the MacIntyre house, there was no sign of the Canadian or his wife. The grey shutters were closed and the kitchen door was padlocked. Good, the boy thought, hoping the house was empty. He didn't want an audience again. As he came in through the gate, the hinges squealed and near the peony bush, his eye caught a flash of white.
Albertine waddled out from the shrubs. As soon as she saw him she began making a noise like an old-fashioned car horn. Then her head went down and she hissed and got ready to run at him. The boy pulled the can of nails out of his backpack and shook it at her so that the clatter made his own ears ring. He began to walk slowly towards her, swearing at her under his breath, fixing his eyes on her, daring her to come at him. Albertine. Espece de mechante bete, venez, he said. He felt at once like Clint Eastwood and Charlie Chaplin, fierce and ludicrous. The goose stopped, turned her head sideways and backed up towards the house. When she reached the wall, the boy stopped rattling the can but kept it in his hand where she could see it. Then he crouched low to the ground and tossed some greens towards her, backed up a few paces, waited. For a long time Albertine stood rooted among the rose bushes, a look of wary bewilderment in her eye. "Allez," whispered the boy, "Mange un peu. Comme ca je t'aurai." He held out the chard, ripped a corner from it and ate it, spitting to get rid of the bitter aftertaste. Then finally, the goose sidled towards the edge of the lawn, keeping one eye on the boy. When he didn’t move, she stretched out her neck, pulled at a piece of chard, then straightened again and the boy watched the glossy leaf disappear slowly into her beak, becoming a small wad that traveled down her neck and disappeared into her broad white chest.
Ils sont partis, tes Canadiens. Pour le Canada, the boy's uncle had told him that evening as they polished the wine glasses. The bald man had left a note with the postman, telling the boy that thirty francs a week would arrive by post for him as arranged by the MacIntyre’s bank in Lyon, ten francs for feed and twenty for his labour.
The sacred animal of Juno, Mirard said, running his trowel slowly along a newly cemented section of wall, when the boy told him about his new job. The goddess of light, marriage and children. The most intelligent of birds and with the best memory. Mirard went on to explain how a flock of geese had saved the Roman capitol by honking and waking the citizens when the Gauls had tried to attack the citadel. The boy understood how such a thing could be possible. He pictured the soldiers retreating in terror, weapons clattering to the ground as the geese ran at them, hissing and waving their necks like a horde of angry snakes.
For the next few afternoons, as the boy approached the MacIntyre's garden with a bucket of grit for Albertine's white plastic bowl and an armful of fresh greens, he shook the nail can hard to overpower the goose's honking but Albertine never ran at him again. After a few weeks, he found her waiting for him at the gate and the can of nails became a greeting rather than a threat. One day, after laying down the fresh greens and checking the water trough, the boy walked around to the back of the house and peered in through a missing slat in the shutters. The salon was vast and baroque. Overstuffed chairs and carved wood chests hunched in the shadows. One corner held a billiard table, another an amazing white marble statue of a winged man bent over a reclining naked woman, their long arms entwined in an elegant embrace. A few bars of coloured light refracted off the crystal drops of an enormous chandelier over the dining table. The room had a sense of quiet expectancy, completely different than the small shabby rooms he occupied with his aunt and uncle over the café.
He plucked a handful of raspberries from the desiccated canes near the kitchen door and sat on the garden bench to eat them, feeding some to Albertine who huddled up against his legs, her soft white feathers caressing his knees. He wondered then if he’d be scouring Pernod glasses and raking the dirt courtyard for the rest of his life. He was hopeless at school. His aunt didn’t seem to mind, not having a high opinion of public education. His uncle bragged about having only been to Lyon once in his life, the day he was exempted from army service so he could stay home and look after the family farm. The boy wandered down the overgrown path through a tangle of plum and quince trees to the lake. Albertine waddled after him, sweeping up leaves and gravel with her white tail. At the locked gate that kept out intruders and fishermen, she stood next to him, poking her orange bill through the barbed wire, gazing at the rippling water. "You’d like to go out for a long swim, wouldn’t you, Albertine?" the boy said running his hand along her soft white neck. She ruffled her wing feathers and sidled closer to him.
Just in front of the MacIntyre gate, a leather sandal lay in the road. The boy picked it up, running a thumb over the broken clasp. Albertine came running to the gate to greet him, honking and snaking her long neck back and forth in a way that showed the boy she was agitated. He wondered if she'd tried to attack the girls, whether they felt like hostages in the house, afraid to come out. He felt he should try somehow to explain about himself, help them to befriend Albertine, but for some reason they terrified him, with their tanned limbs, their halter tops and their long blonde hair. He would have to produce his few words of badly pronounced English. Somehow explain what he was doing there. Instead he walked by, went across the road to the field full of sunflowers and picked a handful of long grass and clover. he went back, thrust it through the bars of the gate and hurried towards the village. Albertine stood sentinel at the gate, honking after him.
On Saturday afternoon the Canadian girls came to the café. They took a table on the terrace near the boules pitch and ordered two demies of Leffe beer, then sat crossing and uncrossing their tanned legs, smoking and writing postcards. One sometimes stopped to read something she’d written aloud to the other. Everyone else in the café was tuned to them, the usual buzz calmed to a central focal point around their table, the village men attempting non-chalance, straining to decode the girls' conversation while pretending to be caught up in their game of boules. One of the Canadians was tall and slim, with a long nose and a tiny diamond stud in her nostril that caught the sun whenever she turned her head. She wore a short flowered dress in some rippling material with very thin shoulder straps and a slit up one side. The other girl wore her dark blonde hair in a long plait. A glossy blue and yellow tattooed butterfly hovered on her shoulder. When the boy’s aunt returned to the kitchen after delivering a second round of beer to their table, she stood with her hands on her hips, her feet planted wide apart at the window and shook her head, clucking her disapproval.
Look at them smoking cigarette after cigarette at the most visible table on the terrace. Drinking beer on a Saturday afternoon. And two beers a piece. And there was Henri Gautier, lecherous old goat, showing them how to throw boules, as if it were perfectly normal for young women to play. The boy took the broom to the café door and pretended to sweep. The tall girl cupped a red ball in her long fingers and squinted down the pitch. Her cigarette was stuck in her mouth and the smoke curled up and around her head like a white garland. Other men, village regulars, stood to one side, arms folded across their chests, smirking as the girls crouched low in their short skirts to bowl the wooden balls down the pitch. The shorter girl had excellent aim, knocking a green ball aside and bringing her own to rest up against the small target ball. The boy felt an urge to go out and wave his arms at the men, to shoo them away and let the girls play in peace.
The girls came often in the afternoons to write and drink beer, although they never tried to join in the boules game again, sensing maybe, a broken taboo. Whenever they left the café, there was always talk: someone had seen them drinking at the beach with gypsies, someone else had seen them swimming naked in the moonlight. Gautier said he'd driven by at four in the morning and seen the shutters open, the lights blazing and music pouring out of the windows.
The weather grew hotter and things began to dry out. The boy had to hose down the terrace and the boule pitch twice a day to keep the dust low. He began to worry about Albertine. He watched her through the fence, waddling about the grounds, sometimes making a small nest under the bushes to keep cool. Everyday the greens he'd thrust through the gate were gone but he couldn’t see the water trough around the side of the house and he wondered if the girls would remember to fill it. Albertine evidently had grown used to the girls. She stopped waiting for the boy at the gate, though if she got sight of him bringing fresh greens, she came over and caught hold of his t-shirt with her beak, giving it a gentle tug before turning her attention to the fresh lettuce or chard.
The heat wave should have brought more customers to the cafe, but it was having the opposite effect in the village. People were staying home with their shutters drawn, preferring their darkened kitchens and lemonade to the café. The boy had less work to do, and instead of going up to the chateau to help Mirard, he often went swimming down on the lake, training himself to go a little further across it each time. He worked on his lung capacity, giving himself small challenges. He would take a large breath and dive, then swimming with open eyes, look up at the distorted sky through the green surface skin of water, waiting until his lungs burned and his ears were pounding with pressure before he burst to the surface. Once he came up in a jungle of lily pads. Their long tubular stems twined round his legs and the white lilies were like open mouths surrounding his head. Frantic, he flapped his arms until he reached clear cold water.
On Saturday of the third week of the heat wave, he found he could swim right across the middle of lake to other end where his uncle’s vineyard stood, the old trellises draped with grapes that made wine his aunt said was too sour to serve to the customers. He hauled himself out of the water and lay along the top of the warm stone wall, keeping a wary eye for the black vipers that sometimes hid in the crevasses. On the hill above the lake, a crane swung a bucket of rocks from one wall of the chateau towards another. The boy felt a twist of guilt in his gut, realizing he'd abandoned Mirard since the heat wave began. He turned on his stomach and faced across the lake towards the MacIntyre house. At the water’s edge, the Canadian girls were standing on the gravel shore. They were wearing bright bikinis, the taller girl in blue, the other in bright orange. The shorter girl tugged at the top of her bikini, waded into the water up to her knees, and dove. The other girl kicked off her espadrilles and caught up with her friend in three easy strokes. The two of them breast-stroked slowly out towards the middle of the lake, an aura of glinting ripples fanning out around them. The boy realized that if he cut through the vineyard, and then up the edge of the road, he could sneak in to check on Albertine, see that the water trough was full and be out again before they returned.
The vineyard was buzzing with cicadas and they leapt in a cloud with each footfall. A garter snake twisted across the boy's path through the yellow speargrass. The road was deserted in the mid-afternoon heat. Albertine came around the side of the house honking but when she saw it was the boy who had come into the yard, she came running to greet him, nearly knocking him down as she heaved her heavy body up against his legs. He squatted down, put his cheek to her neck, threw an arm around her and stroked the waxy white feathers of her breast for a few minutes. At the side of the house, he found an old watering can, filled it with fresh cold water from the outdoor tap at the back door and dumped it into the trough. Then, he put his mouth to the tap and drank. As he stood wiping his mouth, he heard the sound of the girls’ voices coming through the orchard towards the house. He darted into the raspberry canes beneath the master bedroom balcony and managed to haul himself up a plum tree and over the railing onto the balcony. He could wait until the girls went into the house, then cut down through the orchard to the lake.
Wisteria hung in purple fragrant clusters on the railings of the balcony and enclosed it completely from view. The boy peered through a small gap in the leaves down to terrace where Albertine was rustling through the canes, poking at fallen raspberries and insects. She seemed to have forgotten him. When the girls emerged from the orchard, she went running to greet them. They laughed and held out their arms to her. "Hello Bébé." The short girl leaned down to stroke Albertine’s neck and the boy shivered. The taller girl went into the house while the other one picked up a book that had been lying face down on the garden bench. She unwound the blue sarong she was wearing, shook it out and spread it on the long grass of the terrace. Then she sat down, untied the top of her bathing suit and flung it beside her on the grass. She lay down on her back and began to read, one hand over her forehead to shade her eyes from the vicious glare. The other girl came through the door with a pitcher, said something in English and then poured out two glasses of a cloudy liquid. She drank hers down in one long draught. The boy watched her throat contract. Then the taller girl took off her own bikini top, sat down next to her friend on the sarong and began to rub tanning lotion over her arms and chest. Albertine was splashing at the water trough the boy had filled a thousand years ago and he hoped the noise would mask the pounding of his heart.
The heat beat down on the concrete balcony all afternoon. The girls sometimes read, sometimes talked, one or the other going in to fetch cigarettes or sunglasses or pen and paper. The boy strained to understand their conversation but could only make out a word here and there. Tennis. Market. Problem. He wondered whether his knees had seized up from crouching for so long but he was afraid to move in case the rustling of the dry leaves on the floor of the balcony gave him away. He memorized the details of the girls' bodies and the way they moved, the way the tall girl raked her fingers through her blonde hair when she spoke, her small brown nipples, the line of fine blonde hair that ran down the centre of her belly into her bikini. The other girl was softer and rounder and seemed much less aware of her body. Her hair was shoved messily up on top of her head with a tortoiseshell clip and her breasts fell one way and another as she stretched herself every now and again. Once a hummingbird hovered near his ear and then appeared again in the raspberries near the taller girl, a small green flash near her ankle. Then it was gone.
When the sun had sunk below the level of the trees in the orchard, the girls finally went into the house together and he heard the sound of the television through the open living room window. Albertine had disappeared somewhere. The boy easily pulled himself up onto a branch of the plum tree and slid down the trunk of the tree. Dead sticks and leaves poked his bare feet as he picked his way through the quince and plum and apple trees and he saw he had cut his knee as he emerged from the orchard at the lakeshore. The sun’s rays slanted low across the water. Aperitif time had come and gone at the cafe. His aunt and uncle would be angry at his not having come home and there would be a sink full of glasses and ashtrays waiting for him. He tried to decide if it would be faster to swim or go back through the vineyard to find his shirt and towel on the other side of the lake. Then he noticed the lower gate to the property standing ajar. Out in the middle of the lake, floated the white form of Albertine, her neck bowed like a swan.
For a moment the boy fought the determination to swim out after her, to try to bring her home. He felt responsible for her, and fearful that some wild animal might harm her if she strayed out in the woods during the night. But to catch her without help would be virtually impossible. How could he coax her out of the water? And it was already so late. He stepped into the lake, swam across to his clothes and made his way back home along the darkening road.
That night the boy lay sleepless and sweating in his bed, his window wide open and not a breeze to lift the edges of the curtain. He ran through the inventory of the girls’ bodies, imagined the taste of their skin on his tongue. He felt the roundness of their bellies under his palm, like the white down beneath Albertine’s wings, ran his fingers through their long smooth hair. He didn’t know which of the girls he loved more or whether it was even necessary to choose. He could go back and forth between them in his mind. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t speak to them; there was only the braille of moles and hair and nipples.
The next morning the sky was gray and the ozone smell of an impending thunderstorm lay heavy over everything. The boy’s aunt and uncle argued all morning about whether or not to set the tables on the terrace with the white linen they usually used for the Sunday setting. By 11:30 the café was packed and the boy was kept so busy bringing water glasses and bread baskets, rinsing dishes coated in wine sauce and lamb fat, that it was four o’clock before he remembered Albertine and tried to think of a plan.
A few fat raindrops splattered the white linen and the boy and his aunt were hurrying to clear the last tables when the Canadian girls came through the courtyard. The boy watched them talking with his uncle and pointing out towards the lake. The shorter girl seemed to know a little bit of French and he caught the words nager and oie. His aunt wiped her hands on her greasy wet apron and went over to join the conversation. He put down the linen and stood as close as he dared. There were no girls in this village he would ever be able to look at after these Canadian girls. He would never feel what he felt looking at them, the tall girl shifting her weight from one foot to other, the short one with her voice like honey. When his uncle turned to him and beckoned him over, the boy’s pulse began to race but he untied his apron and checked his jeans to make sure the damp hadn't gone through. Then he put his hands in his pockets to hide their shaking and walked over. These girls have lost their goose, his uncle said and laughed in a way that made the boy hate him. They want us to help them get it back.
The shorter girl must have understood some of this. She smiled and nodded at the boy. She says if we all go into the lake and make a big circle around the goose we can persuade her back onto the shore. The boy nodded. It confirmed his own half-formed plan. "Bonne Chance!" his aunt said and laughed. She went back to clearing tables, muttering about how the best place for a goose was the center of a platter. The boy’s uncle went into the house and called Gautier, telling him to bring along his sons to the MacIntyre house. Paul and Dede Gautier were brutes and the boy hated his uncle even more for involving them in the plan, but it was true that they'd need a lot of help if they were going to succeed. They would swim out into the lake and surround Albertine, slowly closing the circle and herding her to the shore. It was decided that his aunt, who didn’t know how to swim, would stand guard at the gate and close it once Albertine had gone through. As he walked with his uncle towards the MacIntyre house, the boy remembered how the short girl had bent down and stroked Albertine's neck, water droplets sliding down her hair and beading up on the white feathers. The rain seemed to have stopped again but the air was still heavy and the thick clouds obscured Mirard’s chateau on the hill.
At the lake, the girls stood for a while, calling out Albertine’s name across the water. She came swimming towards them and one of the girls scattered some grain and a few lettuce leaves at the water's edge. Albertine looked warily at them, swimming in small circles a few feet from where they stood. Then the boy ran up to the house, found the nail can near the front gate and came back down to the shore. He shook the can gently and Albertine swam over, and waddled slowly out of the water towards the food. One of the Gautier boys lunged forward, grabbing at one of her wings. Albertine squealed and her wild beating wings skimmed the water as she fled out onto the lake. Idiot. Gautier cuffed his son's head. It was certain Albertine was onto them now and Gautier suggested they go ahead with the plan to swim out and surround her.
The boy’s aunt scoffed but waved them off, and all seven went into the water, fanning out across the lake, leaving a wide berth between them and the goose. Then treading water, the uncle shouted. Allez. The boy found himself swimming with the two Canadian girls on either side of him. As they drew closer, he saw the motion of their limbs beneath the surface, and heard them breathing hard. Albertine swam first in one direction, then another. She knew she was surrounded and began honking softly, swimming towards the shore beneath the house, the only direction where her path wasn't blocked. The boy could sense her panic mounting as the swimmers converged on her. A foot brushed the boy's leg and then the tall girl was right next to him, her disembodied face floating above the surface. She smiled at him and his heart caught in his throat as she reached out and clamped a hand on the ball of his shoulder. He wondered for a second if she would pull him under like some siren from the bottom of the lake.
She was speaking excitedly but he understood nothing of what she was saying until she pointed over his left shoulder. Albertine was coming straight at them, her neck stretched out straight, her beak open wide. A low–pitched strangled sound from her throat expressed the panic in her eyes. Her wings flapped across the water in a white frenzy. The boy felt his foot touch the bottom of the lake, and he pushed off hard and lunged at Albertine, managing somehow to grab her straining neck with both hands. He shut his eyes against the huge wings that beat his face as she struggled to break free, and began to drag her back towards the shore. Everything in his mind went white and he heard only a distant roaring in his ears. Then he was on firm ground again. The goose had gone limp and still in his arms, her head hanging to one side. The girls and the others swam towards him, watching as he opened his clenched fingers. He was sure now that he’d broken her neck. He put her head against his chest and caressed the smooth neck, the white breast feathers. Then in a slow muscular ripple Albertine raised her head, turned to look at the boy and fluttered out into the middle of the lake. The tall girl swam towards him. “ Breathe slowly,” she said, “Like this.” She put his head against her chest as he had done to Albertine a few minutes before and he stood shivering in the waist deep water listening to the air move in and out of her lungs.
By late August, the outer walls of the chateau were in place but Mirard was in bed recovering from a stroke, forbidden by his doctor even to go near the chateau. The boy went up alone some afternoons when he finished his shift at the café and sometimes he thought of mixing up the cement and going on with the inner walls of the guardhouse, but without Mirard, he never seemed able summon the energy to haul up the gravel and water in the rusted wheelbarrow. This afternoon, he stood on the roof of the keep and looked down at Albertine gliding along the dark surface of the lake near the lily pads. He could see the back of the MacIntyre house, its gray shutters like two closed eyelids, and the garden a small patch of variegated brown. The facteur told the boy that les petites Canadiennes had left for Greece a few days after Albertine’s escape.
The boy sat down and put his cheek against the warm stone. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine them stretched out on their sarongs on a beach near the turquoise water of the Aegean. But his mind was just a mixture of images, brown skin and nipples, the purple scent of wisteria, stretched vowel sounds of English, the caress of feathers. Every day he took an armful of greens and a bucket of grit down to the gate at the shore below the MacIntyre’s house and once he had found a large cracked egg, its contents emptied out except for a bit of stinking yellow along the edge. Sometimes when he called out to Albertine, she swam a little ways towards him but she never set foot on the shore in his presence. He wondered what would happen to her when the cold weather came.