From Book 1: Skip Blithely

As soon as everyone had dressed and swallowed some coffee we went for a walk along the road. It skirted the forest, which was cool and dark with a thick undergrowth and massive trunks, and eventually it wound around among rolling hills, where we looked out at seemingly endless fields of sunflowers. There were no other houses anywhere in sight, and not one car or horse carriage passed us as we walked. “We really are off by ourselves,” Louis noted, and gave me another one of his secretive glances.

            “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Roger gloated.

            Louis asked quietly, “How did you come to know about this place, Roger?”

            Roger shrugged and his reply was very casual. “Bernice mentioned it once. Yes, it belongs to her father. Big deal!” he added when he noticed that Louis and I were both looking at him. “I went to him to rent it, not to her.” Raising his eyebrows, Louis clamped his hat onto his small head and continued walking.

            “Justine!” Desnos bellowed, and in answer she stuck out her tongue at him from where she was standing in the scrub at the side of the road. “You get out of those bushes right now, young lady, before you get a rash! From the paddling I’m about to give you!” He ran for her and Justine shrieked, grabbed Genica’s arm, and ran laughing into the bushes, dragging Genica with her. They disappeared, and Louis and I grinned at the look of uncertainty on Roger’s face as Desnos plowed in after the two women.

            Roger ran to the bushes and parted them, only to stare into more foliage just as thick. “Hey, stick to the road, you guys!”

            “Raspberries,” Justine exulted from somewhere in the brambles.

            “Ow!” Genica cried. Leaves rustled, then parted, and she came limping out to the road all scratched and covered with burrs. Prickly knobs were in her hair and sleeves, and they dotted the bodice of her blue dress. Artaud gave her a chiding smile and led her aside to help her pull them off. As quietly as I could I slipped into the bushes, ducking down low to the thick weeds so as not to rattle the tops and give myself away. Burrs caught my hair and jacket, but when I scrambled into the raspberries the foliage gave way to thorned stalks and bare earth. From above the berries were hidden by the leaves, but on my hand and knees I could reach up and grab whole clumps of them. I continued toward the spot I’d last heard Justine’s voice, munching raspberries as I went.

            “There are lots,” Justine called, sounding quite far away now; I wheeled about in confusion. “Someone go back for a bucket and I’ll make tarts this afternoon.” When no one answered, she yelled, “Did you hear me, Louis? I actually offered to bake something!”

            “Fill your apron,” Louis suggested from the road.

            I heard Justine mutter something about the male half of the species under her breath. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not wearing an apron, and one does not carry berries that way. They’ll get all smashed,” she yelled back. “It won’t kill some fine, strong man to skip blithely down the road and fetch a stupid bucket!”

            “If I do it, does that count as me having prepared one of my meals?” Louis asked.

            The leaves thinned ahead of me and I caught sight of Desnos from the back. He was standing very quietly in a small clearing with his head tilted down to examine something in the dirt. Carefully he tapped it with his toe, then shifted position so that I saw him in profile. A lock of dark hair fell over his forehead as he put a finger to his lips and looked at the ground. Quietly I drew back and let out a long, low growl from the back of my throat. Desnos’s head jerked upward and the color drained from his face. Pleased with myself, I growled again and he turned very slowly toward me, the hair around his ears standing on end and his eyes even more bugged-out than ever.

“You bastard,” he laughed when he saw me, and my concealing branches became an effective trap as he lunged to grab me by the arm and yank me out into the open. My foot caught on a root and we both sat down hard. “Damn you. You scared me!” he giggled as I tried to ward off his playful blows. “Look what I found, though. Look.”

            He pointed at a small, white, rounded piece of bone that curved up from the ground. “What is it? A skull?” I asked, crouching down for a better look.

            Desnos smiled. “That’s what I was wondering myself. Hey! There’s some kind of skeleton here!” he called out to the others.

            “Oh, sure there is,” Roger answered.

            Somewhere behind us the tops of the bushes thrashed wildly. “Where?” yelled Justine’s voice. “I want to see!”

            With a stick I scraped around the object and exposed more of it. It certainly did seem to be the right size for a skull. “And it’s definitely bone,” I remarked, tapping the stick against it. Justine climbed out of the bushes, bunching up her skirt so it wouldn’t catch on the thorns. I stood up, holding the stick and staring at the bone until Justine grabbed a small stone and eagerly began to dig as well. After a moment Desnos took the stick from me and joined her.

            Roger emerged beside me, yanking his jacket free of the brambles with an audible rip. He groaned and turned around to hold the foliage back for Louis. “Just you? Where are—”

            “Genica’s full of thistles,” Louis answered. “She and Artaud went back to the house so she could change. They’ll bring some buckets.”

            “If this is a human cranium, it sure is huge,” Desnos remarked to Justine. They continued scraping but I backed away from the white, curved patch that stood out like an empty eye in the dirt. It had grown considerably larger. “We should be able to lift it pretty soon, though.”

            “You moron,” Roger teased Louis good-naturedly as they walked over to observe the digging. He flung his thumb in the direction of the house. “They won’t bring any buckets! They just wanted to rattle the bedsprings. We’re not going to see those two again for hours.”

            “Skip blithely, Artaud!” Desnos called out. Louis tilted his head so that the brim of his hat hid his flushed cheeks and he laughed with the rest of us.

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