Anna LeVin did not want a child. And if she had to be saddled with one, she certainly did not want a girl. Yet that’s precisely what she got one cool September morning at approximately eight a.m. in La Charité-sur-Loire. The town of few that Anna supposed she was now adding to with her spawn. Anna decided to name her Rochelle, seeing as how the absentee father that helped to create her certainly wouldn’t have a say. Certainly wouldn’t care to.
Anna knew what she might be getting into when she kept succumbing to the carnal pleasures that Henri provided. Like most of life’s cruel ironies, Henri was a classic case of a man who was terrible as a human being, but fantastic as a paramour. Anna had never encountered someone in her boudoir who was quite so capable. Which is why, she supposed, she let her guard down long enough during one particular “session” to forget—in her moment of orgasmic ecstasy—just how much Henri had to be monitored in order to get him to execute the coitus interruptus method on time. And so, those few seconds of bliss would be paid back with interest for the rest of her life. Another unwanted child: just what the world needed.
Rightly so, Rochelle entered the earthly realm screaming. She might have screamed even louder had she known who her mother was going to be. Anna, after all, was a shrew no matter how you sliced it. Even fellow women found it difficult to classify her any other way. Female solidarity wasn’t enough to give her a pass. Oh sure, there were a few who tried to break through some supposed barrier between her persona and the “real” her. But it didn’t take anyone long to find out this was simply who she was. Well, maybe it took longer for Rochelle, who was naïve enough in her perspective of the world as a seven-year-old not to know any better. She also didn’t know that it wasn’t exactly “normal” for a mother to cart her child around in the forest to pick berries at such a young age, yet that’s what Anna had been taking her to do since she was three years old. Rochelle could still recall her mother muttering to her, “If you can walk, you can pick. Might as well make yourself useful since you seemed so determined to be created into existence.” Right smack-dab in the middle of France, at that. Anna didn’t wish the fate of being a Frenchwoman on any human, not even the girl that had ravaged her body. It cursed one to become bitter and self-righteous.
Anna believed that was the real reason she could never bring herself to take the plunge and move to Paris—the French capital of the bitter and the self-righteous. Even though she knew she possessed the culinary skills that far transcended any baker working in the city. There was a time when she believed that theory was all ego, but over the years, the consistently excessive reactions to all her pastries and desserts confirmed in her heart what she knew to be true: elle était un génie. The one person who could have most benefitted from that genius was Rochelle. But no, she was a self-declared anti-sweet, pro-savory type from her earliest cognizance of solid foods. “Such a terrible waste, having a daughter with no sweet tooth,” Rochelle would overhear Anna telling her patrons, who would arrive early in the morning at their humble abode to purchase fresh croissants, éclairs, brioches, beignets, profiteroles—and so on and so forth. Sometimes the same people from the morning crew would show up again at night to sample the batch of desserts Anna had whipped up throughout the day. Her most beloved dish was actually a rather unconventional choice: tarte aux mûres. Anna maintained that it was so delicious because she always picked the berries right from the forest, usually the nearby Forêt des Bertranges. Or sometimes the réserve naturelle of the Loire Valley.
An avid forager since she was Rochelle’s age, Anna was adept at doing it out of socioeconomic necessity rather than because it was suddenly “chic.” Especially when American tourists got their hands quite literally on the trend. Just another reason not to live in Paris: every park, bois and otherwise peripheral land with any sort of vegetation was spoken for. Anna didn’t need to add that extra element of intense competition for ingredients to her baking process. Which was precisely why she went against her better judgment when Rochelle, at the age of ten, was apparently big enough for her britches to demand to be taken to Paris for the weekend, where an open invite from her Aunt Charlotte beckoned to be exploited. Charlotte had a spacious enough apartment (for Paris) in the fourteenth and was in constant contact with sa nièce préférée ever since Rochelle glommed on to the wonders of the telephone. Unable to endure her insufferable complaining about needing to visit Aunt Charlotte in Paris, Anna finally relented just to shut the bitch up.
Though she could have sent the child on her own, she decided to accompany Rochelle, perhaps seeing it as a chance to peddle her wares at some of the shops and bakeries. If nothing else, she could get her so-called “cultural fill”—and maybe some dick to fill her as well while she was at it. After all, the population of La Charité-sur-Loire didn’t offer much in the way of selection. And so, off to Paris they were.
Things were quick to commence inauspiciously as Anna and Charlotte proceeded to get into a spat, like they always did. This was the reason they could not live in the same town. Sisters or not, all they did was get on each other’s nerves, and Charlotte did just that when she berated Anna for dressing Rochelle in such a “country bumpkin” style. Anna snapped back, “Do you have the money to dress her? Go ahead!” And with this, she left Charlotte and her daughter to their own devices. She spent the day wandering aimlessly through Montparnasse. Although she had intended to be “business-minded” while in town, all she could think about was her contempt for her sister and daughter. Both of them constantly assuming they knew better, and that Anna was being “unreasonable.” Neither of them comprehended what it was to give up their life for another. They couldn’t possibly understand her acrimony.
Eventually, that vitriol led her to walk out of the confines of Montparnasse and continue all the way to Bois de Boulogne. Just over an hour on foot, the journey felt like nothing to her. That was the power of being fueled by rage. Taking in the vista provided by the park, Anna slowly began to calm down. But her anger crested again when she realized that this “forest” could never provide her with even half as much selection as the ones near her home. Here, it was too manicured. And gone were the traces of the time when Henry IV had planted fifteen thousand mulberry trees. She sat down in a gazebo and sulked, not even wanting to bother looking around to pick. At that moment, Charlotte called her, and when she grudgingly answered, it was Rochelle on the phone.
“Maman, where are you?” she demanded.
Rochelle and Charlotte arrived soon after by car to collect her, but Anna refused to leave, saying she wanted them to help her forage. Not wishing to make her more irritable, the two consented. They spent hours there, scavenging for the berries Anna would use to make a signature tarte. Only when darkness fell did Anna “allow” them to leave.
Upon returning to Charlotte’s apartment, Rochelle and her aunt looked like they had just been through the apocalypse in their state of disarray and dirtiness. Anna, instead, somehow looked fresh as a daisy. “Well! I’m ready to get to work on the pie!” she exclaimed with delight, her manic mood having shifted to the opposite side of the spectrum.
Hours later, when the pie was fresh from the oven, both Charlotte and Rochelle had fallen asleep on the couch watching Jacquot de Nantes. Anna had no problem with shaking each one violently to wake them up. “Pie’s ready!” she declared as she presented two plates with the steaming confection and set them on the coffee table. Charlotte and Rochelle looked at the other to confirm they weren’t having a dream (or, more accurately, a nightmare). It was also their manner of showing support for the other in getting through this harrowing moment. They grabbed their plates and dug in as Anna watched them like a warden. She rarely tasted her own product, often stating that her opinion was irrelevant and that she merely “knew” when something was going to be sumptuous without tasting it.
Thus, when she woke up the next morning, she was more than mildly surprised to find that her tarte had poisoned her sister and daughter. Giving her the freedom from obligation she had craved for so long. Maybe Paris wasn’t so bad, Anna reasoned as she looked around the apartment that she was soon going to make her own. Sure, it could be toxic for some—but it could also be positively life-affirming for others.