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'Bestiary' by Marge Herman

LISP 4th Quarter 2020 Official Selection, Short Story, 'Bestiary' by Marge Herman


In the small town where Merle lived, the market was the perfect theatre for daily interactions, transactions, and chance encounters.

Cutting her way through the expletive bartering of farmers selling ducks and chickens, or enveloped in the aromas from the cheese and fruit stalls, Merle's mother Françoise savoured the medley of altercations between shoppers while queuing. She regaled her family with choice morsels from these conversations, whether she gleaned them from a chance meeting with an acquaintance, or whether she witnessed them in person.

She had a tight schedule: going round the market, unpacking her baskets laden with fresh produce, preparing the vegetables and cooking the lunch. It had to be cleared away in time for Merle to return to school for the afternoon session.

The table was laid ready for lunch at 12.30 p.m. when Merle got in from school. Her husband’s students would be returning from their own lunches at 2 p.m.

There were always three courses: entrée, milieu, dessert. The focus was on the food, of course, but it was during lunch that Merle's mother could recount her market expeditions, as she called them.

“Giselle was back at the fish stall today,” Françoise said, “only doing half days to start with. Guy was finding it hard to manage there on his own. Everyone was telling her they were glad she was back; they missed her recipes and tips. She was looking good, of course. Not like her husband who has a bit of a cod face – I can never avoid that thought! Giselle takes take of herself and has always real style, but I think it’s wise for her to take it easy.”

Giselle was Françoise’s friend and in remission from cancer.

“I spoke to Annie today, she had more of that Comté – the eighteen-month-old one. She’s not the same since the accident that killed her brother.” Françoise shook her head: it had happened while he was cleaning his rifle in their kitchen, at their farm up in the hills. “I don’t know if she can manage that farm alone and come this far to sell cheese on her stall.”

By the time they finished the entrée – seasonal leaves tossed in vinaigrette – Françoise had launched into full verbal Technicolor. Merle changed the plates for the next course.

“I had to swallow grass snakes, trying to leave before I took root.[1] She can hold your leg for hours,” [2] Françoise was saying about getting caught up with the concierge on the ground floor of their building, and whom she always tried to avoid. “Rabbiting on and on – three times, I picked up my basket to get away!” Merle’s father looked up from his plate. The concierge had also pounced on him that morning.

The pièce de résistance of these accounts usually included accounts of obscure medical symptoms or interventions. The specialité du jour was told with graphic precision – the details so vivid that, years later, Françoise still referred to him as the man with ‘haemorrhoids hanging like grapes’.

Merle noted her father’s relief when Françoise brought over the aromatic Chicken Sauce Chasseur. He had begun to look a little pale – he was never very good with vivid medical details. Placing the steaming dish at the centre of the table with a sigh of exasperation, Françoise launched into the latest instalment from the fruit and veg stall.

The pintade had tried to slip a bruised mushroom into the bag. Françoise used this term of pintade, or guinea fowl, for a certain type of woman imbued with self-entitlement or administrative status. She always used it when referring to the vegetable stall's owner, whose string of large pearls dangled ostentatiously over the shelf under her apron. This specific word had direct connections to bust size and shortness of body, which Merle fully understood with hindsight.

Françoise had demanded that the substandard vegetable be checked and changed.

Immédiatement! I always have to watch her like a hawk!” It was quite normal for conversations to switch languages mid-sentence, depending on the words or cadenza needed for the situation.

In pale pink rubber gloves, this woman apparently never smiled at the customers – whether serving them, or even when taking their money.

“When I think of what I spend there every week!” Françoise continued, “and before she gives me a bunch of parsley on the house, chickens will have teeth!” [3]

Françoise's repertoire of expressions compiled a colourful bestiary, cartoon-like and mostly satirical. It spanned from goats, chickens, piglets, owls (usually associated with wearers of large-frame glasses), to mice and rats, cats and dogs, to leaches, cockroaches, vipers and more – in a surreal vernacular enriched with colourful Parisian argot, much to the delight of her English husband.

Merle's father was never privy to the game Françoise and Merle played, 'Who might the person be, if they were an animal?'

Only the day before, coming out of the dentist's waiting room, Merle and her mother had exchanged just one word: 'hedgehog' – it could just as well have been 'badger', or 'small rat'. It had ended, as usual, in an explosion of laughter: they had had to avoid one another's eye until they were safely out in the corridor. There was never any planning or prior agreement. The game was a mischievous reflex, waiting for the right context.

While people-watching or drawing, often on trains or sitting in a café, Merle often finds herself playing the game alone. Minnie joined in when she was five or six. She has somehow always known the rules.

It is a game of fifty years, a bond between generations – it’s never without Françoise, although she may not always be there in the flesh.

[1]Translated from French [2] See note 1 [3] Translated from French



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