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Five Quarters of the Orange

Chapter One

When my mother died she left the farm to my brother, Cassis, the
fortune in the wine cellar to my sister, Reine-Claude, and to me,
the youngest, her album and a two-liter jar containing a single
black Périgord truffle, large as a tennis ball, suspended in
sunflower oil, that, when uncorked, still releases the rich dank
perfume of the forest floor. A fairly unequal distribution of
riches, but then Mother was a force of nature, bestowing her favors
as she pleased, leaving no insight as to the workings of her
peculiar logic.

And as Cassis always said, I was the favorite.

Not that she ever showed it when she was alive. For my mother there
was never much time for indulgence, even if she'd been the type.
Not with her husband killed in the war, and the farm to run alone.
Far from being a comfort to her widowhood, we were a hindrance to
her with our noisy games, our fights, our quarrels. If we fell ill
she would care for us with reluctant tenderness, as if calculating
the cost of our survival, and what love she showed took the most
elementary forms: cooking pots to lick, jam pans to scrape, a
handful of wild strawberries collected from the straggling border
behind the vegetable patch and delivered without a smile in a twist
of handkerchief. Cassis would be the man of the family. She showed
even less softness toward him than to the rest of us. Reinette was
already turning heads before she reached her teens, and my mother
was vain enough to feel pride at the attention she received. But I
was the extra mouth, no second son to expand the farm, certainly no

I was always the troublesome one, the discordant one, and after my
father died I became sullen and defiant. Skinny and dark like my
mother, with her long graceless hands and flat feet, her wide
mouth, I must have reminded her too much of herself, for there was
often a tightness at her mouth when she looked at me, a kind of
stoic appraisal, of fatalism. As if she foresaw that it was I, not
Cassis or Reine-Claude, who would carry her memory forward. As if
she would have preferred a more fitting vessel.

Perhaps that was why she gave me the album, valueless then except
for the thoughts and insights jotted in the margins alongside
recipes and newspaper cuttings and herbal cures. Not a diary,
precisely. There are almost no dates in the album, no precise
order. Pages were inserted into it at random, loose leaves later
bound together with small, obsessive stitches, some pages thin as
onionskin, others cut from pieces of card trimmed to fit inside the
battered leather cover. My mother marked the events of her life
with recipes, dishes of her own invention or interpretations of old
favorites. Food was her nostalgia, her celebration, its nurture and
preparation the sole outlet for her creativity. The first page is
given to my father's death -- the ribbon of his Légion
d'Honneur pasted thickly to the paper beneath a blurry photograph
and a neat recipe for black buckwheat pancakes -- and carries a
kind of gruesome humor. Under the picture my mother has penciled
Remember -- dig up Jerusalem artichokes. Ha! Ha! Ha! in

In other places she is more garrulous, but with many abbreviations
and cryptic references. I recognize some of the incidents to which
she refers. Others are twisted to suit the moment's needs. Still
others seem to be complete inventions, lies, impossibilities. In
many places there are blocks of tiny script in a language I cannot
understand. Ini tnawini inoti plainexini. Ini nacini inton
inraebi inti ynani eromni.
Sometimes a single word, scrawled
across the top or side of the page seemingly at random. On one
page, seesaw in blue ink, on another, wintergreen,
rapscallion, ornament
in orange crayon. On another, what might
be a poem, though I never saw her open any book other than one of
recipes. It reads:

This sweetness


like some bright fruit

plum peach apricot

watermelon perhaps

from myself

this sweetness

It is a whimsical touch, which surprises and troubles me. That this
stony and prosaic woman should in her secret moments harbor such
thoughts. For she was sealed off from us -- from everyone -- with
such fierceness that I had thought her incapable of yielding.

I never saw her cry. She rarely smiled, and then only in the
kitchen with her palette of flavors at her fingertips, talking to
herself (so I thought) in the same toneless mutter, enunciating the
names of herbs and spices -- cinnamon, thyme, peppermint,
coriander, saffron, basil, lovage
-- running a monotonous
commentary. See the tile. Has to be the right heat. Too low, the
pancake is soggy. Too high, the butter fries black, smokes, the
pancake crisps.
I understood later that she was trying to
educate me. I listened because I saw in our kitchen seminars the
one way in which I might win a little of her approval, and because
every good war needs the occasional amnesty. Country recipes from
her native Brittany were her favorites; the buckwheat pancakes we
ate with everything, the far breton and kouign amann
and galette bretonne that we sold in downriver Angers with
our goat's cheeses and our sausage and fruit.

She always meant Cassis to have the farm. But Cassis was the first
to leave, casually defiant, for Paris, breaking all contact except
for his signature on a card every Christmas, and when she died,
thirty years on, there was nothing to interest him in a
half-derelict farmhouse on the Loire. I bought it from him with my
own savings, my widow money, and at a good price too, but it was a
fair deal, and he was happy enough to make it then. He understood
the need to keep the place in the family.

Excerpted from FIVE QUARTERS OF THE ORANGE © Copyright
2001 by Joanne Harris. Reprinted with permission by William Morrow,
an imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

Five Quarters of the Orange
by by Joanne Harris

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0060198133
  • ISBN-13: 9780060198138